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    Major Changes in Pennsylvania Search-Seizure Law, Drug/Gun Cases

    Commonwealth v. Gary, Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    (April 29, 2014)

    Last reviewed and updated by a lawyer: October 31, 2019

    Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court 2014 ruling changed the entire landscape of search and seizure in drug and gun cases in Philadelphia. In a 62 page opinion, the PA Supreme Court overturned well-established law, that police must be able to show both probable cause and an exigent circumstance (i.e., an emergency-type situation) in order to justify a warrantless auto search and resulting seizure of contraband such as drugs or guns. Click here to download a copy of the opinion.

    Before the Gary case, police officers in Pennsylvania weren’t allowed to seize or otherwise immobilize a car during a traffic stop, without a warrant, unless there was BOTH probable cause and a specific exigent circumstance. In fact, the Pennsylvania Supreme court decided a trilogy of cases in 1995 which held that warrantless auto searches required both probable cause and an exigent circumstance. See Commonwealth v. White, Commonwealth v. Labron, and Commonwealth v. Kilgore. Since then, Pennsylvania courts at the trial court and appellate levels have applied that principle. However, the 2014 Gary court opinion overturned that body of law.

    Related Criminal Law Issue: Can police search personal items in a car, such as a purse, bag, etc.? The general answer is yes, so long as there’s probable search in the first place. Read more about car searches and legal rights of drivers.

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    Background of Search & Seizure Law in Drug/Gun Cases

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    The primary objective of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution is the protection of privacy and the reasonable expectation of privacy in a person’s home, personal items, etc.

    In general, for a search to be reasonable under both the US and Pennsylvania constitutions, police must obtain a warrant that is supported by probable cause and issued by a judge prior to conducting the search.

    This general rule is subject to a few exceptions, including exigent or emergency circumstances. Two common exigent circumstances which often come into play in criminal drug/gun prosecutions include: 1. the need for police action in order to preserve evidence, and 2. the need to protect an officer or the public from a known danger.

    There is also an automobile exception to the warrant requirement.  The vast majority of auto stop cases involve seizure of drugs and guns. So, for the most part, the automobile exception has been litigated in criminal drug/gun cases.

    Related: Philadelphia Criminal Drug Charges, Suppressing Drug Evidence & Incriminating Statements

    Federal Search & Seizure Law in Drug/Gun Cases

    In general, auto searches under federal law are allowed so long as there is probable cause. No exigent circumstances need to be shown. The mere mobility of a car, the fact that it can be moved easily, justifies a warrantless search, so long as there is probable cause. In addition, federal courts have long recognized that individuals have a diminished expectation of privacy in their cars, as opposed to their homes.

    These two factors, inherent mobility and diminished expectation of privacy, have led to greater restrictions on an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights in auto stop cases, i.e., drug/gun cases.

    The Gary Court Analysis

    When it comes to constitutional issues, like search and seizure in drug or gun cases, states must at a minimum, adopt the constitutional protections afforded under federal law. States may enact greater protections under their own state laws. Historically, Pennsylvania was one of those states and enacted greater protections than under federal law.  Therefore, a search that was considered reasonable under federal law may have been considered unreasonable under Pennsylvania law.

    Because of the Gary opinion, Pennsylvania automobile search and seizure law mirrors federal law. The Gary court overturned longstanding precedent and held that warrantless auto searches for contraband like drug/guns are allowed if police can show probable cause. There is no need to show an exigent circumstance. Looking at other states, the majority of which have adopted the federal standard, the Gary court found the inherent mobility of a car sufficient to justify the change in Pennsylvania law.

    The opinion marked a major change in Philadelphia drug and gun cases, making it easier for police officers to search a car and seize contraband.

    Philadelphia Drug-Gun Charge Lawyer

    David Nenner has been handling criminal drug and gun cases for nearly 30 years. Call for a free case assessment. (215) 564-0644

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    Can a police officer ask to see your id card, even though you haven’t committed a crime?

    Yes. Courts in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. have held that merely asking to see id does not rise to the level of seizing or detaining a person. Courts have stated that an individual is free to ignore the officer’s request for id. However, if an officer asks for id and makes a show of force at the same time, like drawing their weapon or badge, or turning on a police siren, a court may find that the officer needed to have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot or probable cause that a crime was committed.

    What is a Motion to Suppress Evidence?

    Motions to suppress evidence are filed in criminal cases and ask a court to suppress or remove evidence from a case. These motions are common in drug possession, drug dealing and gun possession cases, and are most often based on a constitutional law violation, such as a violation of the 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. If a court grants a motion to suppress, the prosecution will not be able to admit, use or even refer to the evidence. As a result of successful motions to suppress, some or all of the charges may be dismissed.

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