Your Rights Against Illegal Search and Seizure in Pennsylvania
The U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions generally prohibit the government from searching you or your property unless they have probable cause. That sounds like a clear-cut rule but federal and state courts have issued numerous decisions over the years that have carved out exceptions and other contingencies that can significantly affect your rights.
While the federal and state constitutions normally require police to get a court-issued warrant before conducting a search, a warrantless search may be found lawful if it falls under one of these exceptions:
- Exigent circumstances — Officers can conduct a warrantless search if there is an emergency, such as when a life is in danger, when a suspect might escape or when evidence is about to be destroyed.
- Plain view — Evidence that is out in the open and visible to the officer can be collected without a warrant. If any officer needs binoculars, infrared technology or other aids to see the evidence, then it is not in plain view.
- Consent — If an officer asks for permission to search a property and the person in possession agrees, then the officer can conduct the search without a warrant.
- Search incident to arrest — When an officer is conducting a lawful arrest, they can search the arrestee and the area within his or her “immediate control” without a warrant, in order to protect themselves or to prevent concealment or destruction of evidence.
- Garbage — Items placed on the curb for garbage pickup are considered abandoned and can be searched without a warrant.
Until very recently, police were allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant if they had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband or evidence of a crime. But in 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled officers must have both probable cause and exigent circumstances to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. This is a far greater protection from search and seizure than federal law allows.
If police conduct a warrantless search that does not qualify for an exception, any evidence obtained during the search can be ruled inadmissible in court. This is called the exclusionary rule. For example, if police searched your home without probable cause and found drugs, the drugs could not be introduced as evidence at your trial on charges of drug possession.
There is another big difference between federal and Pennsylvania search and seizure law. Federal courts allow a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, allowing evidence to be admitted even if was obtained under an invalid search warrant as long as the police had a good faith belief that the warrant was valid. Pennsylvania state courts do not recognize the good faith exception.
The Law Offices of David Jay Glassman is a Philadelphia criminal defense firm dedicated to protecting your rights. If police gathered evidence illegally, we will do everything we can to have it excluded so it cannot be used against you. Call 215-563-7100 24/7 or contact us online if you need to talk to an attorney.