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    Are Warrantless Car Searches Legal? – By a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

    Question: I was driving through Philadelphia, ad a police car behind me flashed his lights for me to pull over. I stopped and pulled my car to the side of the road. The police officer said he pulled me over because one of my tail lights was broken.  Then, the police officer asked me to exit my car and began searching the car.   He found a small bag of cocaine under the driver seat, and I have been charged with simple possession.  Are the police allowed to stop my car for a broken tail light and then search my car for drugs? I thought they cannot search my car without a warrant.

    Answer: Yes, the police in Philadelphia can make traffic stops and then search the cars without a warrant so long as they have probable cause.  In 2014, the standard for warrantless car searches changed after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case.  Prior to 2014, police officers were only allowed to conduct a warrantless search of a car after a traffic stop if there was probable cause and exigent circumstances.

    After the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2014, the police are now  allowed to search a car for drugs or weapons after a traffic stop if there is probable cause.  The police no longer have to prove exigent circumstances.  To see a detailed discussion about this case, see Major Changes in Pennsylvania Search-Seizure Law, Drug/Gun Cases.

    What is Probable Cause?

    Probable cause to search a car exists if there are sufficient facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in the car.  In order to assess whether police had probable cause to search your car, I would need more information about your case, such as what were you doing when the police approached your car, what did the police officer say to you, what part of Philadelphia were you driving through, etc.

    If your situation consisted of the following facts, then the police may not search your car after the traffic stop:

    • you were driving through Center City, near City Hall,
    • you did not reach down after you pulled over,
    • you did not make sudden movements after you pulled over,
    • the car did not smell like drugs, and
    • you were not nervous when the police officer came to the car.

    If those were the facts, the police would not have been able to search your car because there was no probable cause that a crime was committed, i.e., you had drugs or illegal weapons in the car.

    On the other hand, if the following were true when you pulled over, then the police officer has a good argument that he had probable cause to search your car:

    • you were driving through a neighborhood in Philadelphia known for selling drugs,
    • the police saw you reach over to the glove compartment as he approached the vehicle,
    • the police saw you throw something out the window as you were pulling over,
    • the police saw you making sudden movements in the car, and
    • you appeared really nervous and on edge when the police officer was talking to you.

    Since I don’t have all of the facts surrounding the traffic stop, it is best that you discuss your case with a Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer.  Unlike many Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers, we offer a FREE initial consultation.  215.564.0644

    David S. Nenner

    "Top Rated Criminal Defense Lawyer"
    (2015-2022)

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