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In 2020, decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that police could not longer routinely search vehicles without a warrant. If you are involved in a case that centers on a search of your vehicle in Pennsylvania, you may want to consider whether you can file a motion to suppress the evidence found during this search.
The December 2020 ruling in Commonwealth v. Alexander overturned the previous case law, Commonwealth v. Gary. Since the 2014 decision in Commonwealth v. Gary, police could claim they had “probable cause” and conduct a search of almost any motor vehicle without a warrant. Common “probable cause” included claiming to smell marijuana or there being a firearm in the vehicle.
About Commonwealth v. Alexander
On May 11, 2016, Keith Alexander and a female passenger—who owned the vehicle—were stopped in Philadelphia by a police officer. The officer said he smelled marijuana, at which time they admitted to smoking previously.
The police officer claimed to have probable cause because of the smell of marijuana and removed both parties to search the vehicle. Behind the driver’s seat, police found a metal lockbox and a matching key on Alexander’s keychain. Inside the box, they found several bundles of heroin. Alexander was arrested and faced possession with intent to distribute charges.
Alexander and his attorneys filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in this search, claiming they had no permission to search the car or the lockbox. The Superior Court denied this motion using Commonwealth v. Gary. Alexander was convicted in a bench trial. Later, the decision based on Commonwealth v. Gary was overruled.
What Is the Basis for This Decision?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in its decision to disallow many “probable cause” searches of vehicles (such as the one in Alexander’s case), cites Pa. Const. Art. I, § 8:
“The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant.”
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What does This Decision Mean for My Case?
Since 2014, law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania have commonly used the smell of marijuana or the presence of a firearm as probable cause to remove and detain vehicle occupants and search the car. It seems that this is no longer legal under case law, per the opinion in Commonwealth v. Alexander.
Going forward, to search someone or their car, police officers will need to obtain a search warrant. Alternatively, they can conduct a probable cause search, but they will need to show there are both:
- Probable cause for the search
- “Exigent circumstances” that prevented them from getting a warrant
- Contraband in “plain view”
This will likely be much more difficult than it was previously when Commonwealth v. Gary was the law of the land. If your case is currently underway and evidence was discovered in a “probable cause” search, you should discuss with your lawyer whether filing a motion to suppress would benefit you.
What Happens Is Evidence Is Suppressed in My Case?
When a motion to suppress is granted, it often leaves the Commonwealth with no significant evidence to move forward with its case against the accused. In a gun posession case, there may be no evidnece remaining if the gun is suppressed and that was the only charge.
In a drug case, for example, if police smelled marijuana, searched your vehicle, and found marijuana, baggies, scales, and cash, you likely face a possession with intent to distribute charge. However, these charges might be greatly reduced or dropped entirely if the prosecution cannot present evidence, including the baggies, scales, and cash. Even if you admit you possessed a small amount of marijuana, simple possession carries less weight than possession with intent to distribute.
A Knowledgeable Defense Attorney Can Assess Your Options
If your case involved a car stop, and the charges against you are based on contraband items found in your vehicle, you will likely benefit from filing a motion to suppress. Your attorney can assess your case and possibly fight to have any evidence found in a search of your vehicle made inadmissible in court.
This could be a major break in your case. It could lead to the charges against you being dropped or greatly reduced. If you do not have a lawyer representing you in your case, you should consider partnering with one.
What Can a Defense Lawyer Do for Me?
In addition to applying Pennsylvania’s search warrant update to your case, you can trust that your lawyer will do everything possible to secure a fair outcome. This may involve interviewing witnesses, uncovering forensic evidence, and upholding your rights at trial.