When Can Police Search My Car In Pennsylvania?

If law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania pull you over, what rights do you have during the traffic stop related to searches of your car or truck? Can the police search your vehicle for almost any reason? 

In Pennsylvania, the answer to this question is “no.” The police must establish something called “probable cause” first. We will discuss in other articles the ways law enforcement can establish probable cause. 

But that’s not all the police need. Because of a December 2020 court case decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, your rights as a motorist are even stronger. In Commonwealth v. Alexander, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania solidified a new automobile search standard.

So, what was the standard before? Another PA Supreme Court case named Commonwealth v. Gary described the old legal standard. That case said that something called the “Automobile Exception” applied in Pennsylvania and did not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution. As it is sometimes called, the Motor Vehicle Exception allows police to search an automobile without first getting a warrant.

In the more recent Alexander case, the PA Supreme Court held that the police must establish probable cause and exigent circumstances to sustain a warrantless search of an automobile under Article 1, Section 8 of the PA Constitution. Probable cause alone is no longer enough. 

So, what are exigent circumstances in PA? The Court did not give us much guidance on this, unfortunately. However, the Court did clarify that Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees Pennsylvanians more protection than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

If you or someone you care about is facing criminal charges and one of the questions is whether or not a motor vehicle search was legal, you should contact this firm for a confidential and free consultation. Call 215-650-6500 or email us at hello@stephenstewartlaw.com.


If you have a question about whether police had probable cause in a situation involving you or a loved one, call now to speak with a lawyer.


If you are facing an emergency, please call 215-650-6500. An initial conversation with Attorney Stephen Stewart is free and confidential. There's no obligation to hire Mr. Stewart after a consultation.

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