Many criminal drug and gun cases in Philadelphia start with evidence seized during a traffic stop. For example, a Philadelphia resident driving in their car gets pulled over for speeding or some other traffic violation. The police officer searches the car and finds drugs, guns and/or large amounts of cash. Oftentimes, the traffic stop is a pretext used to stop a car and search its contents. Police officers are trained to testify about having “probable cause” to believe that a crime was committed. For instance, many officers will state that they noticed the smell of marijuana or some other drug-related smell, or a police officer will state that the driver appeared under the influence of drugs based on their facial appearance and speech, i.e., bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, etc.
In this legal article, firm founder and criminal attorney David S. Nenner reviews the basics of Pennsylvania search and seizure law applicable to car searches. Mr. Nenner has over 30 years of experience representing Philly residents accused of serious crimes such as murder, drug possession/distribution and firearm charges. Call our law firm for a free consultation at (215) 564-0644.
Getting Pulled Over for Traffic Violations
It is pretty well established in Pennsylvania, under both federal and state law, that a police officer can stop a car for a traffic violation such as speeding, driving without properly working headlights, running a red light, etc. In order to effectuate the traffic stop, the officer is legally allowed to check the car registration and driver’s license in order to issue a traffic citation.
As a general rule, the length of time to effectuate the traffic stop must be reasonable. Unless there are facts or circumstances to show that a crime was or is being committed by the driver or that evidence of a crime may be found in the car, the officer cannot prolong the stop.
For example, a Philadelphia resident is stopped for having a broken tail light. The officer asks for the registration and license, which are valid. There are no facts to point to any criminal activities. Accordingly, the officer cannot prolong the stop and start asking questions about where the driver was going, whether the driver has contraband in the car, etc. The length of time to complete the stop and issue the traffic citation must be reasonable.
Probable Cause to Search a Car – When Can an Officer Search a Car?
As touched upon above, a police officer can search a car during a traffic stop when the officer has probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. So, what is probable cause?
Probable cause is present when the facts or circumstances, at the time of the stop, would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed or is being committed.
Consent to Search & Withdrawing Consent
Many drivers will consent to a search of their vehicle. During a traffic stop, drivers who have illegal contraband in their vehicles may believe that consenting to the search will be better for them. Maybe the officer will let them go if they consent to search. Maybe the officer won’t even find the contraband.
If there’s illegal contraband in the car, consenting to a search will almost always result in a criminal case, like a drug possession case or an illegal firearm possession case. What many drivers don’t know is that they are allowed to revoke consent at any time. But, they must make it clear that they are revoking their consent. An outside or objective person must clearly understand that the person is revoking their consent. Shaking your head or saying “no” isn’t enough.
This issue came up in a recent federal drug case in Pennsylvania (U.S. District Court for the Western District), U.S. v. Williams. There, the driver was pulled over by a state trooper and signed a written consent to search. After nearly 30 minutes, the driver made a comment to one of the officers, “you searched my car three times, now you hold me up and I have to go.” The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals held that this statement was not a clear revocation of the written consent and instead seemed like the driver was merely voicing his frustration. The Williams case stresses that there must be an unequivocal statement, such as, “I don’t want you searching my car anymore.”
Searching the Car – What’s the Scope of the Search?
What Can the Officers Search?
During a warrantless search of a car, police officers are limited in terms of what can be searched. In a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Ross, the Court stated:
Just as probable cause to believe that a stolen lawnmower may be found in a garage will not support a warrant to search an upstairs bedroom, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase. Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.
In other words, the search is defined and limited to what is being searched for and the areas where the object(s) being searched for could reasonably be found. A police officer can’t search for items in areas that don’t make sense. For instance, if a police officer is looking for a firearm, he can’t search an envelope in the car.
In a recent drug dealing case out of Philadelphia, the PA Superior Court ruled in favor of the defendant who was facing drug distribution charges after over 250 pills were found under the backseat cushions of the car he was driving. In Commonwealth v. Brookins (June, 2018), the driver was pulled over for a traffic violation. The officer later testified that he smelled marijuana when he approached the driver’s side window. During the stop, the driver admitted to having a small amount of marijuana in the center console, next to the driver’s seat. The officer searched the console and found the small bag of marijuana. However, the officer and an additional officer then continued to search the car and ripped out the back seat cushions and side panel of one of the rear doors. They found 250+ pills in prescription bottles as well as $3,000 cash.
The driver filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from his car. The trial court found that the items seized from the back seat and door were seized illegally, since the officers had no probable cause to extend the search to the backseat after they found and seized the small bag of marijuana from the center console. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the ruling of the trial court.
The Brookins case, although it’s not precedential per court rules, the reasoning of the court is certainly useful in defending people who are facing criminal charges due to contraband seized from their cars during a traffic stop.
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