The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that reduces the police’s ability to tow vehicles and conduct warrantless inventory searches of the vehicle. These cases often arise in drug cases. The United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions require police searches of a person’s belongings be conducted pursuant to a warrant. Over the years, the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts have allowed inventory searches as an exception to the warrant requirement.
An inventory search is one conducted by police after a vehicle has lawfully been towed and is lawfully in police custody. The original purpose for allowing warrantless inventory searches is to protect the person’s belongings left in the vehicle. Generally, however, the inventory search uncovers contraband that is used as the basis for charges against the owner of the vehicle.
This past December, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a new ruling that greatly reduces when a vehicle may be lawfully towed and placed in police custody. In Commonwealth v. Lagenella, the officer initiated a traffic stop for failure to use a turn signal. When the officer pulled the defendant over he realized that the defendant’s registration was invalid and his license was suspended. At that pont, the officer arrested the defendant and made arrangements to tow the vehicle. After the vehicle was towed, the police conducted an inventory search and discovered the defendant, who was a felon not to possess, had 2 firearms in his vehicle. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the vehicle was unlawfully towed and taken into police custody.
Prior to this case, any time a vehicle was immobilized due to the driver being arrested, the police could tow the vehicle and perform an inventory search. Now, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the fact that a vehicle is immobilized, is not sufficient to warrant the police towing the vehicle. Instead, the police must show that the vehicle’s immobilization will cause a threat to public safety. In cases where a vehicle is immobilized safely off the road and in the shoulder, the police cannot tow the vehicle.
If you or a loved one is being charged for contraband found during a search, contact the experienced and aggressive attorneys at the Kelly Law Firm for a free consultation.