Within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in order for law enforcement to search a vehicle they have generally needed to have both probable cause and exigent circumstances. That all changed in April of 2014. It’s a three year old case, but the impact the case has had on the criminal justice world has been significant.
In April of 2014 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Gary decided that law enforcement no longer needed exigent circumstances in addition to probable cause to search a motor vehicle. In essence, it was decided that probable cause, in and of itself, is enough to allow law enforcement to search a vehicle. Specifically, in Gary they came to the following conclusion:
Our review reveals no compelling reason to interpret Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution as providing greater protection with regard to warrantless searches of motor vehicles than does the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, we hold that, in this Commonwealth, the law governing warrantless searches of motor vehicles is coextensive with federal law under the Fourth Amendment. The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search; no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle is required. The consistent and firm requirement for probable cause is a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles, whose inherent mobility and the endless factual circumstances that such mobility engenders constitute a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of probable cause in the first instance in the field.
From a tangible nuts and bolts standpoint, you may be wondering what this really means. Well, since the case came down, this decision has most often manifested itself in situations where law enforcement can now search a vehicle because they smelled the odor of marijuana.
That dynamic has impacted the criminal justice world so significantly because many people choose to illegally possess and use marijuana in their vehicle. Then, not surprisingly, when they are then pulled over for a minor traffic stop, they have now placed themselves in a situation where they will be detained and their vehicle will be searched if the smell still lingers from inside the vehicle.
So, what is the moral to be taken away from this case? Marijuana is illegal. You shouldn’t posses it or smoke it. And, if that wasn’t clear before you knew about this case, it should be more clear now.
Regardless of the changing political and cultural viewpoints of marijuana with the United States of America, remember you live in Pennsylvania and it’s still illegal.