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April 30, 2014

State Supreme Court rules for warrantless vehicle searches

— Police in Pennsylvania are no longer required to secure a warrant to search a vehicle, after a state Supreme Court ruling Tuesday.

The 4-2 split decision aligns the state's vehicle search law with the federal counterpart, which justifies a search if the officer can demonstrate probable cause.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille, and Justices J. Michael Eakin, Seamus McCaffery and Thomas Saylor held the majority vote. The majority intention, according to McCaffery, is to standardize police search protocol, and cut back on evidence suppression motions and other litigation that muddle the judicial process.

"To provide greater uniformity in the assessment of individual cases and more consistency with regard to the admissibility of the fruits of vehicular searches based on probable cause, a more easily applied rule - such as that of the federal automobile exception - is called for," reads McCaffery's statement in the report.

The decision arose after an evidence suppression effort by Shiem Gary, who was stopped in 2010 by Philadelphia police on a potential window tint violation. The offier reported an odor of marijuana emanating from Gary's SUV and 2 pounds of the drug were found underneath the hood of the vehicle. Gary challenged the legitimacy of the search and won in the state Superior Court.

Justices Debra McCloskey Todd and Max Baer voted against.

"Our Court, by adopting the diluted federal automobile exception and sanctioning the search of Appellee's vehicle under Article 1, Section 8, based solely on the officer's determination of probable cause, has eviscerated the strong privacy protections that amendment affords the people of pennsylvania in their automobiles," reads Todd's dissenting opinon statement. "By so doing, our Court heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright."

Get more details in Thursday's editions of The Tribune-Democrat, including the opinions of local litigators.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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