When is it Illegal to Search Your Car in Pennsylvania?
The moment when a police car’s flashing lights fill your rearview mirror is fear-inducing for many people. Those feelings only get worse when the officer asks permission to search your vehicle. You may feel the air grow heavy and feel filled with uncertainty and anxiety. At this moment, it can be difficult to think of your rights when the police ask to search your car, leaving you vulnerable to an illegal car search.
This is where Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. can help. We can explain this process and explain what you legally can and cannot do during such encounters with the police. If you are arrested after what you feel is an illegal car search, contact our criminal defense attorneys today.
When Can Police Search Your Car?
In Pennsylvania, the police can legally search your car under several circumstances, per the recent rulings of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They have to either have a warrant or have “exigent circumstances” to search a vehicle without a warrant or permission. An exigent circumstance would be reason to believe that evidence is being destroyed, a felon is fleeing escape, or someone is about to be harmed.
In the case of a car search, an “exigent circumstance” would take the form of:
- Probable Cause: The police can conduct a search if they have a reasonable belief, based on facts and circumstances, that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed. Due to the previously mentioned change in the law, the police technically do need to specify an intention to stop the destruction of evidence or stop a physical threat to someone. Probable cause can be derived from observation, such as seeing illegal substances in plain view within the vehicle.
- Consent: If a driver gives consent to the police for a warrantless search, then the police can conduct a search and seize evidence without a warrant. Consent can be seen as a stand-in for exigent circumstances.
What Would Be a Probable Cause for Searching Your Car?
Probable cause must be more than mere suspicion but does not need to reach the level of absolute certainty. Here are some common examples of what counts as probable cause:
- Visible Evidence: If an officer can see evidence of a crime in your car, such as illegal drugs or weapons in plain view, they have probable cause to search your car.
- Smell: If an officer smells marijuana or another illegal substance, they have probable cause to search your car.
- Admissions of Guilt: If during a traffic stop, the driver or a passenger admits to having illegal substances or items in the car and an officer hears, they have probable cause to search your car.
When is a Car Search Illegal?
A police car search can be considered illegal in Pennsylvania under these circumstances:
- Lack of Probable Cause: If the police do not have a reasonable belief, based on facts and circumstances, that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, they cannot legally search your car without a warrant.
- No Consent: If a driver does not give consent to the police for a warrantless search, and there are no other exigent circumstances, the police cannot conduct a search.
- Improper Procedure Followed: If the police have not followed standard procedure leading up to them asking to search their vehicle, they can potentially invalidate a warrant to search the vehicle. Depending on what reason they gained a warrant, this can include pulling you over and questioning you without telling you why you were pulled over and trying to gain access to your car without asking for permission. They can only do this when the warrant is to find evidence for a violent crime and they have reason to believe you are violent.
What Can You Do If Police Ask to Search Your Car?
If the police ask to search your car in Pennsylvania, you have several rights and options:
- Right to Refuse Consent: You have the right to refuse a search of your car if the police do not have a warrant, there is no probable cause, or there are no exigent circumstances. You can politely say something like, “Officer, I do not consent to a search of my vehicle.”
- Ask If You Are Free to Leave: If the police do not have a legal basis for detaining you, you have the right to leave. You can ask, “Officer, am I free to go?”
- Document the Encounter: If you’re able, try to remember or record as many details about the encounter as possible. This can be helpful if you need to challenge the legality of the search later.
- Consult with a Lawyer: If your car is searched against your will and the police find something incriminating, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible. The lawyer can help determine if the search was conducted legally.
What Can Police Do in Response?
If you refuse a car search in Pennsylvania, the police have limited options:
- Obtain a Search Warrant: If they believe they have sufficient evidence to convince a judge that a crime has been committed, they can request a search warrant from a court.
- Cite Exigent Circumstances: Under certain circumstances, police can perform a search without a warrant. This typically applies when there’s an immediate threat to public safety or the risk of evidence being destroyed.
- Arrest or Detain: If they have probable cause to believe you’ve committed a crime, they may arrest or detain you. However, this still doesn’t automatically give them the right to search your vehicle. They need probable cause separate from the reason they detained you unless you were detained for something involving substances or illegal material.
- Impound the Car: In some cases, if the police have reason to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime but don’t have a warrant, they might try to have it impounded and conduct an inventory search later.
However, refusing a search does not provide the police with grounds to search your vehicle.
What Should You Do if You Are the Victim of an Illegal Car Search?
Law enforcement does benefit from people not knowing their rights. When you don’t know your rights, they can easily convince you to allow them to do something you don’t have to. The responsibility of law enforcement is not to protect people but to enforce the law, and to enforce the law, they have to seek out those who break the law.
Don’t let yourself be the victim of an illegal car search. Do further research about your local laws and contact an attorney. If you have been the victim of a car search that you feel is illegal, or even worse, have been arrested after a car search, contact our criminal defense attorneys as soon as possible. The attorneys at Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. can help.