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Can the Police Search my Car Without a Warrant?

  • Published: November 4, 2021
Can the Police Search my Car Without a Warrant?

Can the Police Search my Car Without a Warrant? 

In Pennsylvania, recent rulings have protected citizens from car searches based on solely probable cause. The state now affords its citizens greater protection, requiring officers to show probable cause and exigent circumstances when searching vehicles without a warrant.

Fourth Amendment Protections 

The Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to security and against unlawful search and seizure without a court-approved warrant.

What is the Automobile Exception? 

The automobile exception is a federal standard that excludes cars from Fourth amendment protections. Generally, Pennsylvania law has abided by such federal jurisdiction. In 2014, Commonwealth  of Pennsylvania v. Gary upheld vehicles as an exception to the fourth amendment holding that a warrant was not necessary to search a motor vehicle. Officers could search a vehicle when there was probable cause to do so. 

What happened in Commonwealth v. Alexander? 

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Alexander, holding that the Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution affords Pennsylvanians greater protection than the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment from unlawful search and seizures. As a result, Pennsylvania law now requires both probable cause and exigent circumstances to search a vehicle without a warrant. 

In 2016, two Philadelphia police officers pulled over a vehicle with two passengers in the early hours of the morning. The officers smelled marijuana, and the driver of the vehicle admitted to his passenger having just smoked a blunt. Police officers arrested the driver and passenger, going on to conduct a search of the vehicle for more marijuana. The officers did not find any additional marijuana but did discover a small, locked metal box. The officers then used a key on the driver’s keychain to unlock the box, which contained bundles of heroin.

At a bench trial, the driver of the vehicle filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the vehicle. The defendant claimed officers had exercised an unlawful search of the vehicle. The Superior Court affirmed that under Gary, the officers only needed probable cause to search the vehicle and the defendant’s suppression motion was denied. 

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided that vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances–one without the other is insufficient to conduct a warrantless search. Courts will now have to rule whether or not an officer’s exigent circumstances warrant a search of the vehicle.  

Can the Police Search My Car without a Warrant? 

That depends.

In short, the police can no longer search your car unless they can demonstrate probable cause and exigent circumstances. Probable cause illustrates the standard in which police officers may have reasonable suspicion that a crime has, or is being committed. Exigent circumstances however only apply in emergencies, when there is an imminent threat to another person or if incriminating evidence is at risk of being destroyed. In applying exigent circumstances to warrantless vehicle searches, Pennsylvania law further constricts unauthorized police searches and protects citizens from unreasonable searches. However, Pennsylvanians should be aware that if officers find probable cause and can prove exigent circumstances, they will pursue a warrantless car search. 

Do You Need Motion to Suppress Lawyer in Philadelphia?

Attorney Crichton has a track record of successfully advocating for his clients. From misdemeanors to felonies, Attorney Crichton has defended his clients freedoms in criminal cases. Attorney Crichton has successfully litigated hundreds of Motion to Suppress cases in Philadelphia and surrounding counties. 

If you have been subjected to an unlawful search and seizure and are facing criminal charges, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend your rights! Call (267) 225-3317 for a free, individualized case consultation.



Troy Crichton

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