Changing Criteria

Decision on vehicle searches prompts training

Times Observer file photo A change in case law now requires both probable cause and exigent, or emergency, circumstances for law enforcement to conduct a vehicle search without a warrant. The Warren County Sheriff’s Office held a training for law enforcement state-wide last week to educate officers on the change.

A state Supreme Court case handed down last month has changed the criteria that must be met for law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle.

But a regional training hosted at the Days Inn in Warren last week for officers from across the state has law enforcement prepared to respond to the changes.

The underlying case is out of Philadelphia — a traffic stop yielded marijuana, per the Pa. Supreme Court’s opinion. A search of the vehicle turned up a metal box and the defendant was in possession of the keys. The box, police discovered, contained bundles of heroin.

The court found that the officers — subject to a 2014 decision — complied with guidelines consistent with the federal motor vehicle exception, namely that a warrantless search is proper if the officers have probable cause to believe there’s additional evidence in the vehicle. Underlying that exception is the idea that people have a lower expectation of privacy in motor vehicles.

In this recent case, officers found the marijuana, which satisfied the exception.

The court ruled that standard is no longer sufficient.

“The Pennsylvania Constitution requires both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of an automobile,” the order states.

The change is the requirement of “exigent circumstances” in addition to probable cause. Exigent circumstances include situations such as when someone is in imminent danger or there is an imminent threat of a suspect fleeing.

Underpinning the court’s decision is the statement that “obtaining a warrant is the default rule.”

The court concurred with a justice writing in dissent who said officers are “eminently capable as trained professionals of making the basic assessment of whether it is reasonably practicable for them to seek a warrant, under all of the circumstances existing at the time they wish to search an automobile.”

When the opinion came out, it left the law

enforcement community in a bit of a lurch.

“With limited answers in the case brief,” Sheriff Brian Zeybel said, “it left a lot of grey area for the police in whole.”

As a result, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office sponsored a “Mastering Pennsylvania Search and Seizure training at the Days Inn last Tuesday.

Zeybel said Street Cop Training LLC of New Jersey, which presents classes all over the country, was the provider.

“Approximately fifty officers from across the state including a representative from all local departments, surrounding counties, Erie City, Johnstown and the greater Allentown area had participated in the eight-hour training,” Zeybel said, “including the Warren County District Attorney to review/study relevant case law and court decisions to clear the grey area of the Supreme Court’s newest ruling.”

He explained that the change in law will result in officers having to impound vehicles and then seek a warrant for a District Justice office.

District Judge Raymond Zydonik explained that the three district judges in the county have a rotating on-call schedule for issues outside of normal business hours.

“If an officer contacts the on-call MDJ we can address most issues within a few minutes,” he said. “After the paperwork is completed, they simply fax or email the judge who will administer a oath to the officer and verify the facts set forth in the application for the warrant.”

If those criteria are met, the judge will sign the warrant and then it can be served.

“All other aspects of the investigation will remain the same,” he said. “And remember this is on a case-by-case basis; based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding that unique traffic stop or event.”


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