If you are planning a road trip this summer, it might be a good idea to avoid Pennsylvania.
In a 4-2 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that drivers in Pennsylvania no longer have the right to say no when a police officer demands a search of their car during a traffic stop.
The ruling “heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” Justices Max Baer and Debra McCloskey-Todd noted in their dissent. Baer and Todd were referring to the Fourth Amendment, which expressly bans unreasonable search and seizure practices.
Attorneys said the ruling’s impact will be dramatic.
“Judicial oversight of vehicle searches, just like residential searches, helps maintain a free society,” Christopher Lyden, a defense attorney in Lancaster County, said of the ruling.
“It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” defense attorney Jeffrey Conrad said. “It’s a protection we had two days ago, that we don’t have today. It’s disappointing from a citizens’ rights perspective.”
The case involved a man named Shiem Gary who was stopped by Philadelphia police in 2010 because cops thought his vehicle’s window tinting was too dark. Officers then searched Gary’s SUV and discovered some marijuana.
Gary was subsequently charged. Legal precedents in Pennsylvania previously required law enforcement to get a warrant before searching any vehicle.
Feds Already Have the Same Power
Justice Seamus McCaffrey, who wrote the majority decision, based his opinion on current federal law.
“This case gives the police simpler guidelines to follow and (it) finally and clearly renders our law consistent with established federal law,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said of the Gary ruling. “This is a significant change in long-standing Pennsylvania criminal law, and it is a good one.”
Federal law enforcement officers such as Border Patrol agents and the FBI already have the power to conduct warrantless searches, Stedman noted. McCaffery’s opinion in the ruling was based partially on cases that date back to Prohibition in the 1920s, reporter Matt Miller noted in The Harrisburg Patriot-News.
“Thus, it is undisputable that, under Article I, Section 8, as well as under the Fourth Amendment, there is a diminished expectation of privacy in motor vehicles as compared to a residence, office, or person” McCaffery wrote. In his opinion McCaffery wrote that Supreme Courts in other states such as Massachusetts have already made similar rulings.
Can Police Search Your Data without a Warrant?
Fourth Amendment protections should be extended to cars because of advances in technology, Justice McCloskey-Todd contended. McCloskey-Todd noted that many people keep personal data in phones and other devices built into their vehicles.
“Advances in technology have caused cars to become data repositories revealing the most discrete information about how and where individuals drive, whom they call from their car and any number of other revealing insights into what they do in their daily lives,” McCloskey-Todd wrote in her dissent. “For most people, the automobile…has become a rolling repository of their private possessions.”
The Fourth Amendment specifically bans warrantless searches of, for instance, private papers and letters without a warrant. Modern privacy advocates contend that protection logically extends to electronic devices and data.
“I am concerned that we are on a slippery slope that will eliminate personal privacy and freedom in the name of expediency for law enforcement,” Lancaster County defense attorney Christopher Patterson said of the Gary ruling.
The warrantless searches case was Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Shiem Gary.
Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court is considering whether police must have a warrant in order to search cell phones at the time of an arrest. The justices will rule on that issue in the coming months.
Was the Pennsylvania Supreme Court right or wrong? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.