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Pennsylvania Supreme Court OKs Warrantless Vehicle Searches

Police officers in Pennsylvania no longer need a warrant to search vehicles, under a decision from the state Supreme Court that critics call an erosion of constitutional rights and that supporters say allows officers to do their jobs better.

The high court's 4-2 decision on Tuesday says police need only probable cause to search a vehicle. Officers previously had to obtain a search warrant from a judge, aside from rare exceptions such as an officer's not being able to wait for a warrant.

Carmen Robinson, a criminal defense attorney and former Pittsburgh police officer, expressed concern that some police officers would fabricate reasonable doubt to conduct a search. Young black men in predominantly black neighborhoods and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike will be targets, she said.

"It's going to be fishing season," she said. "It's not going to be all officers, but some are just going to take shortcuts. I think a lot of the constitutional protections are going to be erased."

Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy praised the decision.

"It allows police to effectively arrest and secure vehicles when they have probable cause without having to take additional time to secure the vehicle or have it towed to an impound lot while they go get a warrant," McCarthy said.

Legal experts said the court's decision puts state law in line with federal law.

"No state can give you less protection than the Constitution, but states are free to give you more protection than that, and that's what Pennsylvania had for some time," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

The Fourth Amendment says police must have probable cause to stop a vehicle, such as someone running a red light or stop sign. It says police need separate probable cause -- such as smelling marijuana or seeing a firearm in the back seat -- to search the vehicle without consent.

Wes Oliver, an associate professor at Duquesne University law school and director of the school's criminal justice program, said he was "not at all shocked" by the court's decision.

"I'm shocked the rule was ever contrary (to federal law)," Oliver said.

In the case before the justices, Philadelphia police pulled over Shiem Gary on Jan. 15, 2010, because they thought he had illegally tinted windows. The officers said they smelled marijuana, and Gary told them there was marijuana in the car. Officers found 2 pounds of marijuana stashed under the hood. In his appeal, Gary said the officers did not have probable cause for the search.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices J. Michael Eakin, Seamus P. McCaffery and Thomas G. Saylor disagreed.

In the majority opinion, McCaffery said adopting the federal stance will ensure police follow a "uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict and inconsistency in this often-litigated area."

Justices Debra McCloskey Todd and Max Baer opposed the decision, with Todd writing that it "heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure."

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