Today, the PA Supreme Court held that in order to conduct a warrantless search of an automobile in PA, police need both probable cause and exigent circumstances, expressly overruling the Court’s prior decision in Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) which permitted a warrantless search of a vehicle based on probable cause alone.
In Commonwealth v. Alexander, No. 30 EAP 2019 (December 22, 2020), Justice Donohue authored the majority opinion, stating that “Article I, Section 8 [of the PA Constitution] must be read in conjunction with more abstract considerations of how far the government may encroach on the rights of citizens.” In doing so, the majority held that the PA Constitution “affords greater protection to our citizens than the Fourth Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution]” and that “warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances; ‘one without the other is insufficient.’” (citation omitted.)
In Alexander’s case, officers smelled marijuana after stopping his vehicle. Alexander informed them that he and his female passenger, who owned the vehicle, had just smoked a blunt. Alexander was arrested and placed in the police car and his passenger was also removed from the car.
The officers searched the interior for more marijuana but found only a metal box behind the driver’s seat. The box opened with a key Alexander had on his keychain and contained bundles of heroin. Alexander was charged with possession with intent to deliver and filed a suppression motion challenging the search, which was denied by the trial court. He was thereafter convicted of possession with intent to deliver after a bench trial.
Alexander appealed his conviction to the Superior Court which upheld the trial court’s decision regarding the legality of the search. He thereafter appealed to the PA Supreme Court, asking that Court to overrule or limit the Gary decision.
In choosing to overrule Gary the PA Supreme Court, though requiring the showing of exigent circumstances in addition to probable cause, did not “offer a definition of exigency that will apply to all scenarios.” It did acknowledge that “the basic formulation of exigencies recognizes that in some circumstances ‘the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.’”
Although the Alexander Court implicitly recognized that its decision will, most certainly, generate more litigation concerning the “[d]ifficulties in clarifying the scope of the exigency requirement” as well as “what exactly the PA Constitution demands in a given situation,” the Court’s response was a rather direct, “so what?”
In reaffirming the rights of the Commonwealth’s citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the Court concluded that “[t]he long history of [the PA Constitution] and its heightened privacy protections” did not permit the Court to “carry forward a bright-line rule that gives short shrift to citizens’ privacy rights.”