Will the City’s “Driving Equality Law” decrease prosecutions of illegal guns, narcotics and drugs in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia’s City Council recently passed The Driving Equality Bill (14-2) and Mayor Jim Kenney is expected to sign it into law. The bill will take effect in 120 days. The new law will prohibit police for stopping drivers for low level traffic violations which studies show target minorities, especially black drivers, at a higher rate. While other city governments have passed similar policies, Philadelphia is the largest city to ban police action pertaining to any of the following violations:
- Broken taillight
- Expired registration
- License place issue
- Emissions inspection sticker
- Minor obstruction (hanging air freshener)
What is a “Pre Textual” traffic stop and why do police use them?
The bill targets “pretextual” stops by police who often use these minor violations to stop cars under the belief that the driver has committed a more serious crime like possession with the intent to deliver drugs or narcotics, a firearm or gun offense, and sometimes even drunk driving. As I have written in previous articles and blogs, police need probable cause to stop a vehicle and that probable cause is often a traffic violation such as speeding, running a red light, or failure to maintain lanes. In addition to these moving violations, police can also stop a car for vehicle violations which the new Philadelphia law now prohibits.
How will Philadelphia’s Driving Equality Bill change prosecutions in Philadelphia?
The issue becomes whether Philadelphia’s new law will affect prosecutions in Philadelphia and if criminal defense lawyers can now argue probable cause issues if a police officer stops a car for a vehicle issue and thereafter finds evidence of a crime such as illegal drugs, narcotics, guns, or firearms in plain view or after an investigation.
It’s important to keep in mind that if police stop your car, you aren’t obligated to give consent to search your vehicle or your person and not obligated to make any statements. Warrantless searches in Pennsylvania are illegal and police need a search warrant to search your car or vehicle within the Commonwealth. Warrantless searches in New Jersey are legal and a search warrant is not required.
The recent driver’s equality law will most likely not affect prosecutions within the city as criminal courts in Pennsylvania, specifically Philadelphia, will find that case law as well as Pennsylvania statute override any municipal code in this City. This means that police can still stop a car despite the driving equality law and even issue a ticket despite the law because there are specific statutes within the Commonwealth which permit it. While ultimately a Philadelphia traffic court may dismiss the ticket, this dismissal will not dismiss the more serious charges which allowed the police to stop the car.
The bottom line is that Philadelphia’s new law doesn’t change the way police can use probable cause to stop a car, even if the City has a police against the stop. The case law and statutes in the Commonwealth make this issue very clear!
What is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is the reasonable belief that a crime is or has occurred based on a police officers’ knowledge, training, and education. A lower form of probable cause is reasonable suspicion. While police need probable cause to stop a car, make an arrest, or apply for a search warrant, they may conduct an initial investigation with the use of a drug dog or even a pat down search of a suspect based on reasonable suspicion. The laws are very similar in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and the issue of reasonable suspicion and probable cause are the basis for motions to suppress evidence in both states.
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