April 29, 2014 Update: PA Supreme Court changes PA stop and search law in drug/gun cases.
Getting Stopped by Police in Philadelphia Drug Cases
Under Pennsylvania state and federal constitutional law, police officers are allowed to stop drivers based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred, i.e., a traffic offense. For example, the police may pull a driver over, and if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they may conduct a brief and safe investigation.
Under PA state law, if a police officer sees a driver commit a traffic offense, the officer may stop the vehicle. If, after stopping the car, the officer sees, hears or smells anything which leads to a reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring, the officer may investigate. However, the length of time of the investigation and contact with the citizen/driver must be reasonable. Again, the officer is allowed to conduct a brief and safe investigation, which includes asking about the individual’s identity and asking questions related to the officer’s suspicions of criminal activity.
In many car stop cases, police officers routinely look for drugs/guns in plain view, that is, plainly visible from one of the car windows. If officers see anything that reasonably resembles drugs or guns, they probably have probable cause to arrest the driver, depending on the circumstances. In terms of searching the car without a warrant, there must be some emergency or exigent circumstance which justifies the search.
Warrantless Search of Vehicles in Pennsylvania, The Limited Automobile Exception
It is a well-established principle of Pennsylvania criminal law that warrantless vehicle searches and/or seizures must be accompanied by both probable cause and exigent circumstances beyond the fact that a car is mobile. Reasonable suspicion is not enough to justify detaining a car for an extended period of time, or while police try to get a search warrant. In other words, police officers are not allowed to seize/detain/immobilize a vehicle during a traffic stop, without a warrant, unless there is BOTH probable cause and exigent circumstances (i.e., an emergency-type situation). The simple fact that a car is naturally movable does not constitute an emergency/exigent circumstance. There must be some other fact to show an emergency situation, such as imminent danger to an officer or the general public.
It is important to note that succeeding in a motion to suppress in a Pennsylvania drug/gun case often means disproving sworn testimony of police officers. Doing so often requires great skill in exposing inconsistencies in an officer’s version of events. In many cases, it may be necessary to present evidence which directly opposes the officer’s version of the story.
Drug Charge Lawyer in Philadelphia
If you would like a free consultation in a Philadelphia drug/gun case, please call our office at (215) 564-0644. Our criminal lawyers also represent clients in Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks County.
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