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Traffic Stops and Car Searches

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There is no exception to the warrant requirement in PA for auto searches.  Police need one of three things to properly search an automobile.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Drug Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

As it stands, the law in Pennsylvania is that there is no per se exception to the warrant requirement for searches of automobiles like there is under Federal Law. The PA Constitution requires the existence of probable cause to search as well as exigent circumstances to allow the warrantless search of an automobile.  I have had many client stopped for seemingly innocuous traffic violations, like air freshners dangling from the mirror and window tint.  Almost always, the officer gets around to asking them for permission to search the interior of their car and the trunk.  That's when the trouble starts.

The police stopped me and kept me there for an hour until I gave them consent to search my car, is this legal?

No, it's not.  The stopping of an automobile or the arrest of the driver for an ordinary traffic offense, without more, does not permit a warrantless search of the vehicle.  Once the person produces a valid driver's license and registration, the driver must be allowed to proceed on his way without being subject to further delay. In order to justify detaining the driver for additional questioning, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion of illegal transactions in drugs or of other serious criminal activity.  The frisk of a person after a valid traffic stop is unreasonable if there is no suspicious conduct from which the police could reasonably conclude that the person is armed and a threat to the officer's safety.  The police need to cite you and allow you to be on your way.  If they ask, "by the way, can I search your vehicle?" do not allow it.  Tell them you are not interested in further delay an want to be on your way.

What do the police need to search my car if I'm stopped for a traffic violation?

To justify such a search, the officer must have:

  1. Probable cause to believe that a felony has been committed by the occupants of the vehicle or that the vehicle has been used in furtherance of the commission of a felony; AND
  2. Exigent circumstances or a reasonable and articulable basis to believe that evidence of a crime is concealed within the vehicle, or that there are weapons in the vehicle which are accessible to the occupants (an "exigent circumstance" or emergency situation); or
  3. A validly issued warrant to search based upon probable cause that some crime has occurred and evidence of such is contained within the vehicle; or
  4. valid consent to search.

What can I do about this?

There may be an issue with the search of the car.  The evidence found, such as drugs, guns, pipes, rolling papers, or other types of drug paraphernalia, may be able to be suppressed from evidence.

If you've been pulled over for a traffic offense, be courteous and answer the officers questions.  Do not volunteer information.  Be calm.  Do not consent to a search of your vehicle under any circumstances.  Then call an experienced Drug Defense Attorney at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us immediately.  We respond at night and on weekends.

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