In Pennsylvania, many drug possession/dealing and gun charges originate from a traffic stop. For example, a police officer in Philly pulls a car over for having a broken tail light or running a red light. During that traffic stop, the officer searches the car and finds drugs or guns and then arrests the driver, a passenger or sometimes, both individuals.
Many people who face drug and gun charges in Philadelphia often ask whether it’s illegal for an officer to search a car without a warrant. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many cases where an officer is required to get a warrant to search a car. From a constitutional law standpoint, cars are treated differently than homes because they are movable.
Drug and gun cases accepted in Philadelphia, Delaware County, Chester County, Montgomery County & Scranton/Lackawanna County. FREE CONSULTATIONS (215) 564-0644
Pennsylvania Search & Seizure Law – Did the Officer Have a Legal Right to Search the Car?
In Philadelphia criminal drug possession or gun possession cases involving a car search, the critical issue is whether the officer had a lawful basis for 1. pulling the car over in the first place, and 2. conducting the search of the vehicle and/or its contents.
1. Were You Pulled Over for a Legit Reason? A Note About Pre-Textual Stops
Officers often pull cars over for really minor traffic infractions, like failing to use a turn signal when changing lanes or not stopping at a stop sign. In Philadelphia, it’s unfortunately true that officers pull African American drivers over more often than other races. These stops are often pre-textual, i.e., the officer was looking for any reason to pull the driver over.
Pennsylvania law allows a police officer to pull over any driver who commits any traffic infraction, no matter how small or minor it is. In some instances, an officer may fabricate a traffic infraction. While it’s difficult to prove that an officer made up a traffic violation, it can be done. Solid evidence is needed, such as eyewitness testimony or nearby video footage. With more and more people adding security cameras to their cars and homes, video footage, if found, can help disprove an officer’s version of the events.
2. Searching a Car for Drugs, Guns or Contraband
Under Pennsylvania (state) and federal constitutional law, police officers are not allowed to search a car unless one of the following is true:
- The driver gives consent to search.
- The officer can point to facts supporting probable cause that illegal items are in the car.
- The driver is arrested and the car is searched incident to the arrest, i.e., an officer can conduct a search of the person’s body and their immediate surroundings to find weapons or other contraband.
Consent to Search
Many drivers give consent to search when asked by an officer. Consenting to search is a mistake because officers usually ask for consent because they don’t otherwise have a legal reason to search the car. Giving consent allows the officer to search the vehicle and anything in the vehicle that could reasonably contain the items being looked for.
For example, a driver in Philadelphia is pulled over for a traffic violation. While the driver is passing his license and registration to the officer, the officer comments “Your eyes look a little red and glassy. Been drinking tonight?” The driver says he has not, and is tired from working a double shift. The driver is still in his work clothes and doesn’t smell like alcohol. The officer says, “Ok, would you consent to a search of your car?” If the driver says yes, the officer will then search the car for anything illegal. If anything like drugs or guns are found in the car, the driver would be arrested. If the driver declines, the officer, at this point, would be required to issue the ticket and let the driver go.
Probable Cause to Believe Illegal Items are in the Car
During the traffic stop, an officer can observe facts that support probable cause to believe that the driver committed a crime or the car contains evidence of a crime.
Using the same example above, let’s say that while the officer walks up to the driver’s side window after pulling the car over, he sees a bag in the back seat. The zipper of the bag is open and the officer sees a small bag containing white powder, a syringe and a pipe. Now, the officer has probable cause to search the car and the bag.
For more info, visit the Philadelphia Criminal Law Library.
About Nenner Law
Our Philadelphia law firm is located across the street from City Hall in Center City, Philadelphia. Firm founder David Nenner has over 3 decades of experience defending clients from major felony charges such as drug dealing, gun possession and murder/homicide. He is a top rated criminal lawyer and offers FREE consultations. (215) 564-0644