The holiday season is here, and the roads will be busy with traffic in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While the two states share borders, bridges and sometimes sports teams, the laws are very different with regards to police vehicle traffic stops and searches in these jurisdictions.
In Pennsylvania, police are permitted to stop a vehicle if they have probable cause. Probable cause is usually in the form of a traffic violation or some vehicle deficiency. In addition, a police officer may approach a vehicle not in motion and simply parked if he or she receives a report as to suspicious activity or possibly a medical emergency. This usually means that an officer can engage a driver who has fallen asleep in a parking lot or appears to be unconscious for some other reason.
Car Searches – Warrantless Searches
Following a stop, a police officer in Pennsylvania may not, however, initiate a search of a vehicle without a search warrant. Warrantless searches, for the most part, are not legal in Pennsylvania following the case of Commonwealth vs. Alexander. In that case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Commonwealth v. Gary which previously allowed for warrantless vehicle searches. While persons in Pennsylvania enjoy the right against illegal search and seizure, under Pennsylvania’s Constitution Article 1, Section 8.
This section of the Pennsylvania Constitution allows for further protection than the U.S. Constitution. At the federal level, warrantless searches are legal, and police do not need a search warrant to search a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that a crime is occurring or has occurred. There are exceptions, however, to the search warrant rule and police may seize contraband if it is in plain view or there is some other factor which could cause concern as to the officer’s safety.
New Jersey – Warrantless Searches
In New Jersey police do not need a search warrant to search a vehicle and simply need probable cause. New Jersey, unlike Pennsylvania, maintains an automobile exception to the search warrant requirement. The mobility of the vehicle itself is an exception to search warrant requirement and therefore considered an exigent circumstance.
Traditionally, any search which did not initiate with a warrant, is considered unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that vehicles, unlike homes or a residence are highly regulated. This regulation diminishes one’s expectation of privacy in the vehicle as opposed to their home.
Searches of homes in almost all situations require a search warrant. If police do not have a warrant to search your home, however, they can obtain entry and search the premises if the homeowner or co-owner authorizes entry and consent.
It is very important to consider that constitutional rights are all waivable. This means that despite constitutional protections, a person can consent to practically anything. Our advice to clients and their families is to never consent to a search of your home, place of business or your vehicle. If police are asking for permission to search, they likely do not have sufficient probable cause to perform one.
Why vehicle stops are important
The majority of criminal cases involving the illegal possession of drugs, narcotics, firearms or other weapons start following a vehicle stop and search. Even if police recover contraband from a home, a place of business or a vehicle, the prosecution must still establish beyond a reasonable doubt actual or constructive possession of the item in question. Actual possession is when the item is found on a individual’s possessive person; whereas constructive possession means that it is found in the person’s area of immediate control.
What to do if you’re stopped and arrested
If you are stopped and arrested for illegal drugs, narcotics or the illegal possession of a gun or firearm, you should not make any statements and remain silent. In addition, the bail systems in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are very different. While New Jersey maintains a cashless bail system, Pennsylvania still has a traditional cash system which bases bail amount on risk of flight and propensity toward violence. New Jersey uses the same system, but does not assign a value to bail, but simply whether or not the person should be detained prior to trial.
Our criminal defense law firm wish you and your family a happy and safe holiday season!
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