April 29, 2014 Update: Pennsylvania Supreme Court makes major changes to auto stop and search law in drug/gun cases.
VEHICLE SEARCHES IN PHILADELPHIA CRIMINAL DRUG CASES
Many Philadelphia drug cases involve search of vehicles and resulting seizure of drugs/guns found in vehicles. For many residents of Philadelphia, drug/gun convictions often result in jail/prison time, loss of employment, loss of medical benefits, loss of disability benefits, etc. Therefore, it is crucial to have a potential drug/gun charge case reviewed by a skilled criminal lawyer who will be able to identify if there is a valid illegal police search issue. If there is, the case may be dismissed for lack of evidence.
Part 1 of this article discusses vehicle searches in PA and whether warrantless searches of vehicles are illegal.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REASONABLE SUSPICION AND PROBABLE CAUSE
The difference between what is reasonable suspicion and what is probable cause is really a matter of degree. In Pennsylvania, probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed. Basically, this means that an officer has probable cause when there is a reasonable basis to believe that a crime has occurred and that the person being investigated has committed it. There must be facts and evidence to support a finding of probable cause.
Reasonable suspicion can be described as circumstances “where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous.” This standard was first laid out in a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case, Terry v. Ohio.
Since 1968, Pennsylvania courts have basically found that reasonable suspicion is a lesser standard than probable cause and depends on the info police have and whether that info is reliable given the circumstances of the situation. The police officer must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts” leading him to suspect criminal activity is afoot.
Philadelphia Drug Case Hypothetical – Drugs/Guns Found in a Car
An officer pulls a car over in North Philadelphia after allegedly seeing the car blow through a stop sign. Here, the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop the driver and obtain driver’s license and insurance information.
As the officer walks to the driver’s side window, he sees a small package thrown out of the front passenger side window. He also smells what he knows to be the smell of burning crack cocaine when the driver rolls his window down. The driver is agitated and nervous. At this point, the officer has probable cause to believe that a violation of Pennsylvania drug law has occurred, i.e., illegal possession of drugs.
When the officer looks into the car, he sees the handle of a gun sticking out from under between the driver’s seat and front passenger seat. Now, the officer has probable cause and an exigent circumstance, the presence of a gun which creates a risk of danger to the officer and general public. Under these circumstances, the officer would probably be able to lawfully place the driver under arrest and search the vehicle without a warrant.
Any contraband found would be confiscated and used to support a criminal case for possession of drugs, possession of drugs with intent to deliver and/or unlawful possession of a firearm.
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If you or a loved one was arrested for a drug/gun charge in Philadelphia and would like a free consultation, please call (215) 515-0042.
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