Federal "Automobile Exception," According to Some Courts, Allows Warrantless Searches of Cars Without Exigent Circumstances
In most circumstances, a warrantless search by police violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts have identified exceptions to this rule, however, when police have probable cause to believe that a search will yield evidence of a crime, and "exigent circumstances" make it likely that delaying the search to obtain a warrant would result in the loss or destruction of the evidence. Many states, including Texas, have also adopted an exception to the "exigent circumstances" requirement, known as the "automobile exception." Pennsylvania became the most recent state to adopt the automobile exception, in Pennsylvania v. Gary, No. 26 EAP 2012, slip op. (Pa., Apr. 29, 2014).
The defendant in Gary was convicted of drug possession after police found about two pounds of marijuana during a search of his vehicle. Police claimed that they stopped the defendant because they believed that his tinted windows violated the state Motor Vehicle Code. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officers claimed to smell marijuana. They asked "if there was anything in his vehicle that the officers need to know about," Gary, slip op. at 2 (quotations omitted), and he reportedly admitted that he had some "weed." They removed the defendant from the vehicle and found the marijuana under the front hood.
The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the police had both probable cause and exigent circumstances, in part because the defendant was not technically under arrest and could have left with the contraband. The appellate court reversed the court's order, finding that because the defendant was in police custody, there was no "imperative need for prompt police action." Id. at 4, quoting Pa. v. Gary, 29 A.3d 804, 808 (Pa. Super. 2011). Prosecutors appealed to the state Supreme Court.