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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Announces Departure From SCOTUS’ Vehicle Exception to Warrant Requirement, Commonwealth’s Constitution Provides Greater Protections

Philadelphia police stopped a vehicle driven by Keith Alexander at 2:30 a.m. on May 11, 2016. Officers smelled marijuana, and Alexander admitted that he and his passenger had just smoked a blunt. Alexander and his passenger were placed in a patrol car while officers searched their vehicle. Officers found a locked metal box behind the driver’s seat. The box unlocked using a key Alexander had around his neck; it contained bundles of heroin.

Alexander was charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin, and he filed a motion to suppress the search of the vehicle. Finding that officers had probable cause to search the vehicle and the box to locate marijuana, the Superior Court denied his motion. The denial rested on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s opinion in Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (not a majority decision but rather an “Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court”), which held that nothing more than probable cause is required for the application of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement because a plurality of the court announced that the federal automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies in Pennsylvania.

Alexander appealed, requesting the Court overrule or limit Gary on the grounds that Article I, Section 8 of the Commonwealth’s Constitution affords greater protections, requiring exigency in addition to probable cause. The Court, in ruling in Alexander’s favor, conclusively answered this question for the first time in its history.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by default, requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before conducting a search in most cases. However, as the determining factor is reasonableness, the U.S. Supreme Court has held there are exceptions to this requirement. Following the newfound popularity of automobiles in the early 20th Century, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized such an exception for automobiles on the grounds that “the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction.” Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). This led to the requirement that officers prove exigent circumstances, in addition to probable cause, in order to search a vehicle without a warrant.

Sixty years later, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped the exigency requirement entirely in California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985). It reasoned that “the pervasive governmental regulation of, and local law enforcement’s extensive contact with, motor vehicles” created a diminished expectation of privacy among motorists. Further, the Court reasoned a roadside search is preferable to impounding the car to conduct a search. Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970). Thus, under federal precedent, law enforcement need only articulate probable cause (the belief a crime has been or about to be committed and evidence is likely to be in the vehicle) to conduct a warrantless search).

Until the 1990s, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court followed federal precedent regarding the automobile exception. The Court’s shift away from following the U.S. Supreme Court in lockstep had to do with the purpose, and remedy for violations of, the warrant requirement.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), holding that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment would not be suppressed (or “excluded”) where officers “acted in [an] objectively reasonable” manner. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court answered this decision with one of its own, Commonwealth v. Edmunds, 586, A.2d 887 (Pa. 1991), holding that the privacy guarantee in the Commonwealth’s Constitution does not permit the “good faith” exception articulated in Leon.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court later explained, “the survival of the language now employed in Article I, Section 8 through over 200 years of profound change in other areas demonstrates that the paramount concern for privacy first adopted as part of our organic law in 1776 continues to enjoy the mandate of the people of this Commonwealth.” Commonwealth v. Lewis, 636 A.2d 619 (Pa. 1994).

The Court departed from federal precedent again in Commonwealth v. White, 669 A.2d 896 (Pa. 1995), in which it suppressed the results of a warrantless automobile search where the Commonwealth failed to “establish any exigent circumstances beyond the vehicle’s inherent mobility.”

Only days later, the Court ruled similarly, except this time it relied upon Article I, Section 8 for its decision. Commonwealth v. Labron, 669 A.2d 917 (Pa. 1995). However, this decision was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court. On remand, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reaffirmed its decision but did so without a majority of the Court.

It was against this background that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in Gary, in which the Court ruled that a search was permissible where the officers possessed probable cause but not exigent circumstances. It is this decision that Alexander asked the Court to overrule on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the protections afforded by the Commonwealth’s Constitution.

When considering to overrule a prior decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has discussed the legal principle of stare decisis, a shortening of the “Latin maxim ‘stare decisis et non quieta movere,’ which means to stand by the thing decided and not disturb the calm.” Ramos v. Louisiana, 140 S. Ct. 1390 (2020). The U.S. Supreme Court has “identified several factors to consider in deciding whether to overrule a past decision, including ‘the quality of [its] reasoning, the workability of the rule it established, its consistency with other related decisions ... and reliance on the decision.” Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 139 S. Ct. 2162 (2019).

In applying the foregoing principles to the present case, the Court stated that the first strike against the ruling in Gary is the fact it’s not a majority decision but rather an “Opinion Announcing the Judgement of the Court,” which “reflects only the mandate, and not the rationale, of a majority of Justices.” Pa. Code § 63.4(B)(3). While four justices joined the ruling in Gary, only three of the justices signed on to the proposed reasoning for doing so. The fourth justice, Justice Saylor, did so “for the sake of certainty and consistency” yet bemoaned “the court’s rejection of bright-line rules restraining law enforcement as a means of protecting individual rights, while simultaneously embracing such rules when they facilitate law enforcement.”

The second strike against Gary is that, while binding Pennsylvania precedent to federal precedent makes the job of law enforcement easier and is “more consistent,” it is not the Court’s duty to ignore the Pennsylvania Constitution or make policy. Doing so “presumes that we are free to ignore the Pennsylvania Constitution simply because it makes law enforcement more difficult, or, worse, that we are to determine the law based on what we think is good for law and order in society. We are not a policy branch, and we cannot ignore constitutional commands even if they make the work of police or prosecutors harder.” Citing Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, 557 U.S. 305 (2009).

Third, despite contravening White and Labron, “[t]he Gary plurality’s analysis did not identify any manifest error or erosion of the challenged precedents.” Thus, the Gary Court varied from prior precedent seemingly for no reason other than convenience, the Court explained. Also, only five decisions since Gary have cited it, and none of those relied on the plurality’s rationale.

The Court found that these factors accorded with the analysis it performed in Edmunds, where that court interpreted the Commonwealth’s Constitution in a way that rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Leon. It went further to address the Chief Justice’s dissent by identifying other areas where Article I, Section 8 “is tied into the implicit right to privacy in this Commonwealth.” Quoting Commonwealth v. DeJohn, 403 A.2d 1283 (Pa. 1979) (relating to privacy in bank records). And that privacy right also stems from Article I, Section 8. Commonwealth v. Shaw, 770 A.2d 295 (Pa. 2001) (relating to privacy in medical records).

The Court therefore overruled Gary, announcing “we return to the pre-Gary application of our limited automobile exception … pursuant to which warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances,” either alone is insufficient.

Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the Superior Court to determine whether there were exigent circumstances in addition to the probable cause established in Alexander’s case. See: Commonwealth v. Alexander, 2020 Pa. LEXIS 6439 (2020).

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