One of the most frequent questions that comes up with criminal cases and vehicle stops involving the police is: When can the police search my vehicle? Before answering this question, let's look at what an individual's privacy rights are in Pennsylvania when it comes to a vehicle.
Under Pennsylvania law, there are generally only two ways that the police can search your vehicle. (it is being assumed for this post that there are not any exigent circumstances, such as drugs in the car in plain view, police chase etc). First, the driver or owner of the vehicle must consent to the police searching his or her vehicle or second, the police have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime or criminal contraband in the car. Let's look at both of these in turn.
The first thing to remember when it comes to the issue of whether or not consent was given to search a vehicle is, just because you give your permission to the police to search your car, it doesn't mean that a Pennsylvania Court will uphold this search as constitutional. In order for an individual to give his consent to a police search of his vehicle, that consent must be given both voluntarily and intelligently. Pennsylvania courts have looked to different factors when considering whether consent to search was given knowingly. Specifically, Courts look to see whether the police had any Reasonable Suspicion of criminal activity going on in the car, whether the person who consented to the search of the car felt as though he was free to leave and whether the police car had his overhead lights on. All of these factors are items that PA courts analyze when assessing whether a person voluntarily consented to a police search of his vehicle.
If an owner of a vehicle does not consent to the search, then the police must have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime or criminal contraband in the car in order to search it. Things that the police can use as probable cause to search the car is the smell of marijuana coming from the car or odd movements or nervous behavior by the driver of a vehicle. Regardless of the specific factors in your case, make sure you consult with an experienced Criminal Attorney if you are charged with a crime. For further information on your rights read: Illegal Searches