SCOPA: Police No Longer Need Warrants To Search Cars In Pa.
By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - A recent ruling from Pennsylvania's highest court could have a big impact on your privacy rights during a car stop.
Pennsylvania traditionally provided broader privacy protection than the US Constitution. For decades, police in the Commonwealth had to get obtain warrant from a judge before they could do a car search unless time was of the essence or the evidence could be lost or destroyed. But now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's 4 to 2 decision in Commonwealth v. Gary changes the rule.
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"There'll be lesser protection of privacy in Pennsylvania," says Dave Rudovsky, a professor at Penn Law school and a civil rights attorney.
Rudovsky says Article I, Section 2 of the Pennsylvania Constitution had been interpreted to provide broader protection that the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. Police had to contact a judge during a stop, either via phone or radio, for permission to conduct a car search. Rudovsky says the new ruling means police, not a judge can decide whether to search.
"Now if police officers have probable cause-- a good faith belief that a crime has been committed, they can search your car without having to first obtain a warrant," he says.
"The district attorneys offices will say this is about drugs and guns and that is true, but it does not end there," says James Funt, an attorney with Greenblatt, Pierce, Engle, Funt & Flores.
"Whatever is in the car can be searched," he says, "it's a slippery slope."
Funt says the ruling severely erodes Pennsylvania's privacy protections by essentially concluding that citizens have less privacy in their cars than in their homes. He says people carry cell phones and other electronic devices in their cars and the court's ruling means these items could be vulnerable as well.
"Where does it stop? It doesn't," says Funt, "It will not end with guns and drugs."
For years, Philadelphia police have been taken to task over the abnormally high number of stop and frisks of minorities. (see related story) Funt says groups targeted for such stops, could be targeted for these searches.
"Officers will likely try to abuse this new found power," he says, "They've tried to do it before and this is simply a check and balance that has been removed."
Civil rights advocates say beware.
"Be ware of what you put in you pocket or what you put in your car," says Funt, "you no longer have any safeguard from the government coming into your car-- their right to intrude had exponentially increased."
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