What Does the New Court Decision on Vehicle Searches Mean for Defendants?

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Feb 01, 2021 | 0 Comments

Thanks to a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, police officers can no longer search cars without a warrant unless there is both an emergency situation that demands immediate action, and probable cause that a crime occurred.

Unfair Stops and Searches

The court decision overturns the Court's previous 2014 finding in Commonwealth vs. Gary and will allow greater legal protections for people in the state, especially those suspected of or accused of crimes. The new finding returns the state to the laws that existed before 2014 and Commonwealth vs. Gary. The new decision will mean that police departments statewide will have to rewrite their policies on vehicle searched and will have to retrain officers to comply with the new decision.

The 2014 Gary decision allowed officers to search a vehicle whenever the officer believed illegal items were present in the car. The decision led to an increase in the number of cars being searched, and an investigative report in the Philadelphia Inquirer last year found that 80% of the vehicles searched were driven by Black drivers, even though officers only found drugs or guns in the vehicles 12% of the time. During the five years the Gary decision controlled the law, Philadelphia police stopped and searched more than 25,000 drivers based on the officer smelling marijuana smoke, even though marijuana was often not found in those searches.

The Case that Changed the Law

The case that triggered the new decision involved a driver named Keith Alexander, who was stopped after an officer smelled marijuana smoke coming from his car. Alexander admitted to the officer that he had just smoked marijuana. Alexander was arrested, and the arresting officers used a key on Alexander's keychain to open a lockbox in the backseat of his car. The lockbox held 10 bundles of heroin, and Alexander was charged and convicted with drug dealing.

Alexander's lawyer appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Pennsylvania Constitution provided greater protections than the U.S. Constitution and that Alexander had the same right to privacy in his vehicle as people in the state enjoyed prior to the Gary decision in 2014, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed.

Help for People in Pennsylvania

The new decision will undoubtedly decrease the number of vehicles searched in the state, leading to fewer situations where drivers perceive they are unfairly targeted or harassed. It will also provide new defenses for people who believe they were arrested after a search that may have been illegal.

Most importantly, because officers will no longer be able to search a vehicle without a warrant unless it's an emergency and they have probable cause, more people in the state will be able to go about their daily business without worrying that they could be unfairly stopped, searched and arrested.

If you think you have been unfairly stopped, searched, and charged with a crime, you need to speak with an experienced Pennsylvania criminal law attorney who can explain your rights and help you decided your next steps. Our Criminal Law Team can help. Contact the LLF Law Firm today so we can discuss your situation with you at 888-535-3686.

About the Author

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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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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