Taking the Fourth Amendment to the Streets

The modern media has made Americans familiar with certain protections afforded by the United States’  constitution.  Most anyone you ask can recite the Miranda warnings, even if it’s just from exposure to police officers on Law and Order.  You know the ones, “You have the right to remain silent. . .  etc.”  Also familiar is the angry retort from the suspect, “Oh yeah? Where’s your warrant?”  Although the Miranda warnings are straight forward enough (they have to be, their entire purpose is to make sure you understand your rights), the rules surrounding warrants is much murkier.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable” searches and seizures.  What this protection really offers however has been subject to numerous interpretations resulting in a maze of exceptions.  This blog post is designed to address one particular type of “Fourth Amendment activity;” motor vehicle searches.

When a police officer initiates a traffic stop, that stop must be supported by an officer’s reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or probable cause to believe that criminal activity is afoot.  Frequently, when a vehicle is detained during a traffic stop, officers will attempt to search the vehicle in order to find illegally possessed weapons or drugs.  Generally, warrantless searches are considered legally unreasonable unless the circumstances surrounding the search meet one of a few well delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement.  This means a search is unreasonable without either a warrant or special circumstances which excuse the lack of warrant.

One special circumstances that is valid is where there is consent to search by someone with sufficient authority, for example, by the car’s driver.  However, a search predicated on consent is only valid if the Commonwealth demonstrates that the consent was voluntarily given.  Pennsylvania courts have suppressed evidence obtained as a result of an otherwise consensual search where the consent is granted after the individuals right to be free from unlawful seizures has been violated.  In other words, the police cannot search your car even if you consent, if they did not have a good reason to pull you over or if they detain you after the purpose of the traffic stop has been achieved.

Pennsylvania requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to extend a traffic stop after the initial purpose of the stop has been achieved.  This means that if a police officer has pulls a car over for speeding and have written up a speeding ticket, they need to have a reasonable belief that the occupants of the vehicle are committing some other crime in order to continue the detention.

In Pennsylvania, the scope of a detention is limited to the reasons that justify it.  An officer who has reasonable suspicion to detain a citizen based on their speeding, should only be asking questions related to the traffic violation.  It is not permissible for an officer to detain a citizen and question them regarding other unrelated issues as part of what lawyers call a “fishing expedition.”  That would violate the citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable seizures.  If an officer does unlawfully detain a citizen and then requests permission to search the vehicle, the search will have been tainted by the prior illegality.

The reason it is so important to determine the legality of any detention or search that resulted in criminal charges is the doctrine of suppression may help your criminal case.  It is important to communicate all the circumstances surrounding a traffic stop to your attorney.

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