How Can The Police Search My Car Without My Permission?
I wrote recently about one’s rights when pulled over by the police. In summary, in the great majority of cases, police need probable cause or consent in order to search a vehicle. In the probable cause context, recent case law eliminated the requirement that police obtain a search warrant prior to searching. The consent context is different altogether in that police do not even need probable cause. If the driver knowingly and voluntarily agrees to let the police search their vehicle, it does not matter if there was any prior indication of criminal activity. In a recent case, though, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has limited the scope of the allowable police intrusion in the consent context. In that case, the driver consented to police searching his vehicle. The police searched and could not find anything. They then summoned a K9 to come to the scene for a “sniff search.” The K9 did not arrive to the scene for 45 minutes, but when conducting the sniff search, smelled controlled substances which were wrapped inside Christmas presents. The driver was charged, as a result, with certain drug offenses. He argued, though, that his consent was only for the human police to search his vehicle and not to have to wait another 45 minutes alongside the roadway for a more exacting search – that being the dog’s sniff search. The Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed with him, but he appealed to the Commonwealth's highest court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the driver that the search was illegal. These cases are all fact-intensive and almost no two cases are the same. Presumably, if the officers had just communicated a little more clearly up front and the driver still consented, the search would still be considered constitutionally valid. But, at any rate, the new case shifts the landscape of search and seizure jurisprudence in Pennsylvania in an important way.
Another, perhaps lesser-known, way that the police can search one’s vehicle is by conducting an inventory search. Inventory searches are another exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Pennsylvania’s courts have held that it is permissible for authorities to search one’s automobile after an arrest of the driver that requires impounding the car. Police not only do not need a warrant, but also do not need probable cause in this type of situation. The policy behind this type of allowable search is that, if a vehicle is going to be sitting in a police impound lot, police should have the right to search it to make sure there is nothing dangerous in the vehicle and to make sure the arrested individual’s property is appropriately inventoried. This type of search can, of course, turn up evidence of crimes and lead to further charges against the arrested individual.
If police have seized your automobile, or you have been charged as a result of a police search of your vehicle, you should immediately contact Scaringi law’s experienced search and seizure attorneys to apprise you of your rights.