Police Car Stops - What Makes a Car Search Valid?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jul 02, 2017 | 0 Comments

When a person is arrested for a drug offenses or a DUI in Philadelphia, and for many other kinds of criminal offenses, the person's vehicle is often involved.  Whether a person is driving a car, a truck, or any other kind of vehicle, why the vehicle came to be stopped by the police and how the vehicle came to be searched often can win or lose the prosecution's case.  (For purposes of this article, “car” will be used interchangeably with “vehicle.”)

What is the law regarding when and what the police can search after a car stop?

There are a number of important court cases, both Pennsylvania and federal, which speak to what constitutes a valid car stop and search.   How these cases apply to general car search fact patterns follow below:

Can the police "frisk" my car?

If reasonable suspicion to believe that a suspect is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons, the police may do a “frisk” or protective sweep of a car.  The police can only look for weapons and only in those portions of the passenger compartment where a weapon could reasonably be located.  Michigan v. Long, 463, U.S. 1032 (1983).  Commonwealth v. Morris, 644 A.2d 721 (Pa. 1994).  The search of a pill bottle or film canister would be unreasonable and unconstitutional in this context.  The police must articulate specific danger, not simply “for my safety.”  Commonwealth v. Hernandez, supra. 

The Pennsylvania Court found that a passenger's evasiveness and fidgeting around the car's glove box does not equal probable cause to search the glove box.  Commonwealth v. Talley, 634 A.2d 640 (Pa. Super 1993).

What constitutes "probable cause" when the police search a car?

If the police merely see drug packaging in a car, no probable cause to seize or search the packaging if the container has other lawful uses.  Merely seeing a pill bottle is not probable cause, since such packaging is commonly used for other lawful purposes and therefore is not per se contraband.  Hudson, supra (The police seeing pill bottles with full and partial labels during sweep of car does not equal “plain view”); Commonwealth v. Kelly, 409 A.2d 654 (Pa. Super. 2000); Commonwealth v. Stackfield, 651 A.2d 558 (Pa. Super. 1994 (a car search case that involved ziplock baggies).

Do the police need a warrant to search a car?

Even if probable cause to seize the item because it likely contains contraband or evidence of crime, the police cannot search the item without a warrant.  Commonwealth v. Timko, 417 A.2d 620 (Pa. 1980) (where defendant was arrested after fleeing from the car, police lawfully seized valise from car, but were required to obtain warrant before searching valise); Commonwealth v. Martin, 626 A.2d 556 (Pa. 1993) (search warrant required to search satchel carried by defendant, even though probable cause existed to believe it contained drugs); Commonwealth v. Parker, 619 A.2d 735, 741 (Pa. Super 1993) (even if search of car and seizure of cassette tape was lawful, listening to the tape constituted an additional search and required a search warrant).  See also Riley v.  CA, US 6/25114 (the police cannot search cellphone incident to arrest; the police must get a search warrant); Commonwealth v. Stem (Pa. Super., 7/11/14) (same).

Can initial consent to a car search become invalid?

If the defendant is subjected to a lawful traffic stop that is illegally prolonged, subsequent consent to search is invalid.  Once the legitimate purpose of the initial car stop ends, continued detention requires new reasonable suspicion, otherwise subsequent consent, statements, observations, and so forth, are "tainted."  Effective defense attorneys will understand that the District Attorney will most likely try to argue prolonged interaction was “mere encounter” rather than a “stop.”  The standard is as follows: “Did the defendant feel reasonably compelled to stay/comply, or was there a sufficient break (For example, did the coerciveness of the initial car stop clearly dissipate)?  See, for example, Commonwealth v. Moyer, 954 A.2d 659 (Pa. Super 2008).

Can blood be drawn after a person is stopped for a DUI?

If the defendant was arrested for DUI, the defendant's blood may be drawn (a “search” of the defendant) under certain specific circumstances (per Pennsylvania's Implied Consent Statute, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547.

Can a car be impounded and towed after a car stop?

If the defendant is stopped and has no license, insurance, or registration, the defendant's car may be subject to impoundment, towing, and inventory search under Pennsylvania's Live Stop Statute, 75 Pa.S.C. § 6309.  In general, to be a valid inventory search, the defendant's car must be in lawful police custody.  The police must specifically establish that the car search followed standard police procedures.  West, 937 A.2d 516 (Pa. Super. 2007); Commonwealth v. Hennigan, 753 A.2d 245 (Pa. Super 2000) (police saying search was “routine” is not sufficient).  A car search for criminal investigation purposes equals an invalid inventory search.

Live Stop practice in Philadelphia generally involves the Philadelphia Police doing inventory search of car while waiting for a tow truck.  The latest Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Commonwealth v. Lagenella, No. 14 MAP 2012, held that such a search violates the statute.  The police may immediately immobilize the vehicle (boot the car for example), but must wait 24 hours before towing when there are no safety concerns, and may not do an inventory search before the actual impoundment (towing and storage) of the car.

Philadelphia Attorney to Fight Car Search | Lawyer to Defend Against Philadelphia Car Search

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges resulting from a car stop and search, contact LLF Law FirmJoseph D. Lento today.

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Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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