To search Pennsylvania cars, cops now only need probable cause

A woman reported seeing a man masturbating in public along Lehigh Avenue in Kensington on Wednesday. Credit: Metro file photo
Credit: Metro file photo

A Philadelphia police captain said Pennsylvania is no longer the outcast.

After a landmark decision by the state Supreme Court two weeks ago, police in Pennsylvania are no longer required to obtain a warrant before searching a citizen’s car.

Federal law states that police do not need a warrant to search a vehicle if the officer has probable cause. But in Pennsylvania, state law dictated that it was necessary, unless the operator gave full permission.

“Pennsylvania for the longest time has been touted as a jurisdiction or a state that provided more coverage or more protection than the United States Constitution in this realm,” said Capt. Francis Healy, who acts as an attorney within the Philadelphia Police Department and special assistant to Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “And that was kind of the context of historically why Pennsylvania treated these cases somewhat differently than the Fourth Amendment.

“The Fourth Amendment is kind of like the minimum bar across the country; states are allowed actually to implement higher standards, but they can’t go lower,” Healy added.

On April 29 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court lowered that standard. Now, police only need probable cause before they can conduct a search.

The decision was approved after a 4-2 vote. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, and Justices J. Michael Eakin, Seamus P. McCaffery and Thomas G. Saylor were the majority.

Justices Debra McCloskey-Todd and Max Baer did not support the measure.

In the majority opinion, McCaffery said pulling in line with the federal stance ensures that police “follow a uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict and inconsistency in this often-litigated area.”

“I was surprised that Pennsylvania courts kind of went backwards a little bit on it,” Healy said, “and went to the federal opinion, but I’m not surprised on their argument after reading the case.”

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said his group was disappointed in the decision.

“We don’t think there was any pressing need for the court to change the well-settled law,” he said. “We understand the court wanting to clarify the law, but we disagree with the outcome of the court’s analysis.”

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