Many of our criminal cases begin with a police traffic stop and a vehicle search. In these situations, a person right against illegal search and seizure becomes critical. In Pennsylvania, unlike New Jersey, warrantless searches are not legal. New Jersey, however, unlike, follows the federal rule with regards to the warrantless search of vehicles.
This means that in New Jersey, if police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime and the evidence of the crime exists in the car, they can search vehicle. In Pennsylvania, however, police need a search warrant in most situations unless they can establish exigent circumstances or find an exception to the search warrant requirement.
Exception to the Search Warrant Requirement – Plain View Doctrine
Many of our clients contact us and ask questions about illegal search and seizures. An important point, however, is to understand that a plain view doctrine is an exception to a search warrant requirement in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If police come upon a vehicle and identify contraband in plain view (not hidden or under cover) they can seize the contraband and arrest the driver for illegal possession of the contraband (illegal drugs, firearms or other substances).
Actual vs. Constructive Possession
It is important to keep in mind, however, that even if the police find contraband in plain view, the prosecution (district attorney) must still establish beyond a reasonable doubt actual or constructive possession at the trial level. Actual possession means that the contraband in question is on the driver’s or passenger’s person, whereas constructive possession means that the contraband is in the person’s area of immediate control These are critical points that your criminal defense lawyer must stress during pre-trial motion to suppress evidence or during the actual trial.
Other Exceptions to the Search Warrant Requirement
There are various exceptions to the search warrant requirement, including plain view along with inventory searches and searches made for the officer’s safety. For example, if the officer came upon a vehicle and noticed what appeared to be a bulge of a handgun in the driver’s bag while the item in question was not in plain view, the officer could testify that based on his training and other experience, he had reason to believe that the driver could cause harm to his person or fellow officers. This is an arguable point, however, because the defense can argue that the officer could have removed the driver from the vehicle and requested a search warrant for the item in question.
Exceptions to the search warrant requirement and probable cause to search are key issues in any criminal defense case. If you have questions regarding illegal search and seizure and search warrant requirements in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, contact our office.
Contact Our Criminal Defense Lawyers in PA & NJ
Please click here to contact our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers. We offer free case reviews and serve the following areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Atlantic City, Camden, Cherry Hill, Chester, Conshohocken, Doylestown, Media, Norristown, Philadelphia, Pottstown, Salem, Upper Darby, Upper Merion, Upper Providence, Vineland & Woodbury areas.