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A Motion to Suppress from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has significantly changed Pennsylvania law. On December 22, 2020, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a warrant is (once again!) required for car searches in Pennsylvania. This ruling gives new strengths to Motions to Suppress evidence from car stops throughout the Commonwealth. Elections have consequences and the new Democratic majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have ruled in favor of people’s rights. The Supreme Court explicitly overruled Commonwealth v. Gary, which since 2014 had reduced the rights of Defendants in Pennsylvania to the federal bare minimum standards. Commonwealth v. Gary did away with the warrant requirement for vehicle searches as long as the police had “probable cause.” They reasoned that since cars are mobile they are always an exigent circumstance that shouldn’t require the warrant approval process. Finally, this poorly reasoned decision has been overruled and Pennsylvania’s warrant requirement has new life.
Commonwealth v. Alexander is a significant decision that will impact the litigation of motions to suppress for the coming years. The Court held that that Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution affords greater protection to Pennsylvania’s citizens than the Fourth Amendment and Federal U.S. Constitution. The Court thereby reaffirmed the pre-Gary (2014) holding that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of an automobile.
Alexander was pulled over by a Philadelphia police officer in the city and county of Philadelphia. At the motion to suppress hearing, the officer testified that the vehicle smelled like marijuana, to which Alexander replied that the female passenger, who owned the vehicle, had just smoked a blunt. Alexander was removed from the vehicle and the police searched the vehicle for more marijuana. The police found a metal lockbox in the rear of the car which they opened and discovered bundles of heroin. The Superior Court reasoned under Gary, that the police only needed probable cause to search the vehicle and that the scope of the search extended to any container that may contain relevant items. Since the lockbox could have contained marijuana the search was lawful.
In Philadelphia in particular, the police love to use the smell of marijuana as justification to search one’s car. Alexander along with Commonwealth v. Barr and Commonwealth v. Hicks seem to strongly indicate that the smell of marijuana or presence of a firearm alone will no longer be considered probable cause to violate one’s privacy in their vehicle. In addition, Commonwealth v. Alexander has now resurrected the pre-Gary exigent circumstances jurisprudence. So in order to legally search a vehicle, the Commonwealth must demonstrate that there was probable cause for the search AND that there were exigent circumstances precluding their ability to get a warrant.
The law has never been better for people rights in Philadelphia. If you have a case involving a car stop with gun or drug contraband, you need to file a Motion to Suppress. Troy Crichton, Esq. has litigated hundreds of Motions to Suppress Philadelphia and stays abreast of the latest developments in criminal justice law. Call 267-225-3317 for a free consultation today. Don’t just take any deal until you’ve had your case reviewed by a lawyer who understands the legal nuances of a Philadelphia Motions to Suppress.
 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.” Pa. Const. art. I, § 8.
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