Pennsylvania High Court Allows Police To Search Vehicles Without Warrant

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The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion this week that opens the way for local police to avail themselves of the same warrantless search powers that Federal law enforcement officers operating in the State already enjoy when stopping and questioning motorists.

In a 4-2 ruling, the Court on Tuesday concluded that municipal police may search a vehicle without a warrant, even over the objections of its owner and/or its occupants, if they have developed sufficient probable cause to believe the vehicle may be an accessory to criminal activity.

The decision stems from an appeal of a 2010 case in Philadelphia in which police searched a man’s car without a warrant after pulling over the driver – Shiem Gary – because they believed his window tinting was too dark. Once Gary was stopped, the officers said they smelled marijuana and brought out a drug dog, who promptly “hit” on a suspicious area of the car. The vehicle indeed had two pounds’ worth of marijuana underneath its hood, and Gary went to jail.

The Court’s majority opinion notes that other States already have streamlined their laws to overlap with the powers afforded Federal law enforcement agents. Pennsylvania’s reversal, according to Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, simply allows local police to adhere to a “uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict and inconsistency in this often-litigated area.”

But critics argue the decision needlessly expands the power of the state at a time in our Nation’s history when individual rights have never been more threatened by an overreaching government.

“It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” defense attorney Jeffrey Conrad told Lancaster, Pa. court reporter Brett Hambright “It’s a protection we had two days ago, that we don’t have today. It’s disappointing from a citizens’ rights perspective.”

Writing for the minority, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd agreed, objecting that the Court’s new direction “heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright.”

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Personal Liberty

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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