Court Rulings Sanction Warrantless Car Searches

Matt Vespa
By Matt Vespa | May 7, 2014 | 1:33 PM EDT

There seems to be a quiet shift happening in the police-civilian relationship.   Recently, two decisions from courts at the state and federal level said it was legal for a law enforcement officer to search vehicles without a warrant.  That's right; cops no longer need warrants to search your car.

Let's look at Navarette v. California. A driver allegedly is run off the road by what seems to be a drunk driver. The distressed driver calls 911 about the incident. Police officers pull over a truck matching the description of the vehicle given by the caller in the same vicinity, where they find 30 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.

The Supreme Court had to decide if an anonymous 911 tip constituted enough reasonable suspicion for officers to stop a vehicle.

The majority voted that it did meet constitutional muster.  On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia was outraged, saying "the Court's opinion serves up a freedom-destroying cocktail...all the malevolent 911 caller need do is assert a traffic violation, and the targeted car will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, by the police...that state of not my concept, and I am sure it would not be the Framers', of a people secure from unreasonable searches and seizures."

In Pennsylvania, state law said that drivers were able to refuse a search by a police officer unless they obtained a warrant.  They could also consent to the search. Now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that police officers no longer need warrants to search vehicles - if they have probable cause.  In the 4-2 decision, the majority opinion said that the adoption of 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."

Federal law permits car searches based on probable cause.

The legal questions within this case also involved a challenge to a search that led to the discovery of marijuana.  In January of 2010, Philadelphia police officers stopped a car owned by Shiem Gary on the suspicion that he had illegally tinted windows.  The officers smelled marijuana, which Gary admitted, leading to the discovery of two pounds of the illicit drug under the hood.  Gary appealed saying the officers didn't have probable cause to search his vehicle.

Well, that question has been answered for now.  But, where does it end? Currently, a majority of the states have adopted the federal exception to Fourth Amendment protections over warrantless searches of vehicles.