The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution offers greater protection to citizens from warrantless searches of their vehicles than does the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Prior to the ruling, Pennsylvania precedent held that the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment applied in Pennsylvania without exception.
Justice Christine Donohue, who penned the opinion for the majority, relied heavily on previous opinions from former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd in reaching her conclusion. Donohue quoted Todd, who believed that “[t]he absence of similar language in the Fourth Amendment suggests that Article I, Section 8 ‘was intended to protect an individual’s privacy interest in all of his or her possessions or things in any place they may be,’ including a vehicle.” Additionally, Todd was quoted as stating that Article 1, Section 8 provided citizens “a robust individual right of privacy in one’s papers and possessions, and protects that privacy right through its warrant requirements for searches of ‘any place’ such items may be found.”
Donohue and the majority ultimately concluded that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires two showings to justify a warrantless search of an automobile. The officer(s) must have probable cause, and further, the exigent circumstances must justify a warrantless search. The Court chose not to define the meaning of exigent circumstances. Instead, they suggest that each warrantless search be reviewed on a case by case basis, considering the totality of the circumstances to determine its constitutionality.
The Court did state that the default rule for officers is to obtain a warrant. In the event that an officer proceeds to conduct a warrantless search, a court in review will be required to determine whether exigent circumstances existed to justify the officer’s judgment that obtaining a warrant was not reasonably practicable.
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