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PA Supreme Court Rules Police Need Both Probable Cause And Exigent Circumstances For Warrantless Searches

Harrisburg, PA – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed its own prior decision on Tuesday and banned police from searching vehicles without a warrant unless there is both probable cause to believe a crime occurred and exigent circumstances exist that require them to act immediately.

In 2014, the court ruled police only needed probable cause to conduct a warrantless search due to the fact that vehicles can easily be moved from a scene, the Associated Press reported.

As such, officers were legally able to search vehicles anytime they had probable cause to believe illegal contraband was inside, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the court overruled its own prior decision in a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

“Difficulties in clarifying the scope of the exigency requirement will lead to debates about what exactly the Pennsylvania Constitution demands in a given situation. But so what?” Justice Christine Donohue wrote in for the majority.

“The long history of Article I, Section 8 and its heightened privacy protections do not permit us to carry forward a bright-line rule that gives short shrift to citizens’ privacy rights,” Donohue added.

She further noted that “the universe of qualifying ‘exigent circumstances’ is impossible to define with precision,” but argued police need to have a better reason to justify a search than to just point at the fact that vehicles can be driven away, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that “exigent circumstances” include situations were officers are pursuing a fleeing suspect, emergency aid is needed, or when evidence could be destroyed.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sallie Mundy was one of three justices who dissented with regards to the court’s reversal.

“When we become untethered from our previous decisions, we instantly implicate this court’s credibility and our ability to effectively adjudicate the many types of cases upon which litigants look to us for guidance,” Mundy wrote, according to the Associated Press.

She said the probable cause standard was sufficient and “deferred to the needs of those we entrust with the difficult job of policing.”

Justice Thomas Saylor, who also dissented, said the court must avoid taking a “revisionist” approach in handling matters, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Saylor said Tuesday’s decision “impedes the effective enforcement of criminal laws in a fashion well beyond any impact that the framers might have envisioned.”

The case that precipitated the latest ruling involved a defendant who was transporting a locked metal box containing heroin when he was pulled over in 2016, according to the Associated Press.

The defendant was later convicted of possession of heroin with intent to deliver.

The court sent the case back to the county in light of Tuesday’s ruling in order for the lower court to determine whether or not exigent circumstances existed at the time of the search, the Associated Press reported.

Written by
Holly Matkin

Holly is a former probation and parole officer who is married to a sheriff’s deputy. She is a regular contributor to Signature Montana magazine, and has written feature articles for Distinctly Montana magazine.

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Written by Holly Matkin


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