If the police stop you in Pennsylvania, they don’t need a warrant to search your car.
And soon, you could be in trouble even if they find nothing.
The state Supreme Court ruled last week that police are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant. The state General Assembly, meanwhile, is moving forward with a bill that would give cops the authority to arrest people caught with “secret compartments” in their vehicles, even if there is nothing illegal in those suspicious containers.
It adds up to greater authority for police and prosecutors but less privacy for Pennsylvania drivers.
The split-decision from the Supreme Court allows police to conduct searches of cars based only on probable cause — that is, as long as the officers conducting the search have a reason to believe there are illegal goods or evidence of a crime hidden inside the vehicle.
Writing for the majority in the 4-2 ruling, Justice Seamus McCaffery said requiring police to have probable cause for a search is “a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches,” and brings state law in line with federal law allowing warrantless searches of vehicles.
Defense attorneys and civil liberties groups disagree.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said he worries that killing the requirement for a search warrant eliminates an important check on police power.
“I think getting a warrant is significant because it is one more deterrent against bad police behavior,” he told PA Independent. “There was really no reason for the court to overturn the law. We have a long history of strong protections for individual rights in Pennsylvania.”
Some states have constitutional language requiring a warrant before a vehicle can be searched, but Pennsylvania’s does not. In the ruling, McCaffery said that has caused a wide range of confusing and contradictory rulings from state courts that have examined the issue.
“To provide greater uniformity in the assessment of individual cases and more consistency with regard to the admissibility of the fruits of vehicular searches based on probable cause, a more easily applied rule — such as that of the federal automobile exception — is called for,” he wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd said the court was “eviscerating” longstanding privacy protections by adopting the “diluted federal automobile exemption.”
“By so doing, our Court heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” Todd wrote.
But law enforcement in Pennsylvania might soon get a gift from the Legislature, as well.
On the same day the Supreme Court ruling was announced, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation making it a crime to possess a car with “secret compartments.” If the bill becomes law, anyone caught with such compartments could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor and have their vehicle seized by police — even if the compartments hold nothing but air.
A conviction would carry up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
State Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor, said law enforcement asked her to introduce the bill. Police are concerned about vehicles that pass through Pennsylvania on a well-known smuggling route between New York and Florida.
Guns, drugs and even people can be smuggled inside those secret compartments, she said.
If police happen to catch a smuggler with illicit goods, they don't need any additional laws to arrest the suspect. But if the bill passes, law enforcement will have another way to stop the suspected smugglers — even if they aren’t carrying anything, Harper said.
“The objective is to get those cars and trucks off the road, so if you’re using the same truck to drive back and forth between Florida and New York and we catch you doing it, then we can get it off the road,” Harper said this week.
To find an example of how that law works in practice, look no further than Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the west.
Last year, Ohio made “secret compartments” illegal. The Ohio law, like the proposed bill in Pennsylvania, specifies the compartment must be “used or intended to be used” for the concealment or transportation of illegal substances.
But in December, Norman Gurley became the first person in Ohio arrested for having a secret compartment in his vehicle. The compartment was empty.
According to local news reports, police in Lorain County stopped Gurley and claimed to smell marijuana in the car, giving them probable cause to search the vehicle, which is legal under Ohio law.
The cops found no drugs but they noticed wires leading to the back of the car. The police eventually uncovered the illegal compartment, which was empty, and arrested Gurley.
“Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges on the suspect,” Lt. Michael Combs of the state highway patrol told WKYC-TV.
If Harper’s bill becomes law, Pennsylvania would join a small but growing number of states in which secret compartments in vehicles have been made illegal at the request of law enforcement groups and district attorneys.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, views the growth of those statues as the result of state Legislatures giving little thought to the consequences of adding more crimes to the state code.
“It is part of the expanding criminalization of America where virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police,” Turley wrote in December about the Gurley case.
Harper says she only wants to target those who are using the compartments for criminal behavior. The bill was amended in committee to require law enforcement to prove a compartment exists with the intent to be used for criminal activity before a vehicle can be taken.
Harper’s bill was approved with a unanimous vote in the House Judiciary Committee on April 29 and sent to the full House for consideration. There is no timetable for a floor vote.
Eric Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and EBoehm@Watchdog.org. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.