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Superior Court: Warrantless Vehicle Search & Seizure Illegal

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In a recent decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that police did not have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the motor vehicle in question where it was not "immediately apparent" that the prescription pill bottles observed in "plain view" contained illegal substances. Commonwealth v. Hudson, 586 EDA 2013 (Pa.Super. 2014).

The Hudson Case

In this case, Hudson was pulled over by police for a broken tail light. While conducting the traffic stop, police observed Hudson making furtive movements towards the center console. Upon obtaining his license and registration, the police asked him to exit the vehicle in order to perform a protective sweep for officer safety.

During the protective sweep, an officer observed 3 pill bottles in the center console - 2 of the bottles had labels that were partially removed and the third bore Hudson's name. The bottles were seized, Hudson was arrested, and it was later determined that the pill bottles contained illegal prescription pain medication.

Absent Probable Cause, a Warrantless Vehicle Search is Unlawful

Until recently, police were only permitted to conduct a search of an automobile without a warrant where both probable cause and exigent circumstances existed.

However, earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Commonwealth v. Gary, 26 EAP 2012 (Pa. 2014). In Gary, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that "[t]he prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search; no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle is required."  (To learn more about the Gary decision and the automobile exception, check out Attorney Curry's blog on this topic.)

Thus, the question before the court in Hudson was whether the police officers had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search.

To determine whether probable cause existed in Hudson, the court conducted its analysis under the Plain View Doctrine.

"The Plain View Doctrine [] permits the warrantless seizure of an object when: (1) an officer views the object from a lawful vantage point; (2) it is immediately apparent to him that the object is incriminating; and (3) the officer has a lawful right of access to the object."

Here, the court found that the police observed the object from a lawful vantage point and had a right of access to the center console because Hudson's vehicle was stopped for a motor vehicle violation and the officers were permitted to conduct the protective sweep due to his furtive movements towards the center console at the time of the stop.

However, the court found that neither the pill bottles nor their contents were "immediately apparent" as contraband. In fact, it was not until after the seizure of the bottles and their contents and Hudson's arrest that the police later determined the illegal nature of prescription pills. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the warrantless search of the pill bottles was conducted without probable cause and, therefore, the search was unlawful.

Suppression of Evidence

Based upon the court's ruling, the evidence would be suppressed or thrown out.

In cases where it appears an illegal search and seizure may have occurred, a Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyer can file an Omnibus Pretrial Motion to Suppress Evidence on your behalf.

As a general rule, an Omnibus Pretrial Motion must be file within 30 days of Formal Arraignment. A Motion to Suppress Evidence can be included as a part of it. A motion for suppression argues that an illegal search and seizure has occurred, outlines the basis for such belief, and request that the court exclude or throw out the illegally seized evidence.

In order to preserve and raise an appropriate challenge, it is imperative that you get a skilled, knowledgeable, and experienced PA Drug Defense Attorney involved in your case at the earliest possible stage.

If you or someone you care about has been charged with a crime, contact an experienced and professional Harrisburg Criminal Defense Attorney committed to helping people throughout Central PA.

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