While criminal defense lawyers’ reactions to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent ruling lowering the standard for warrantless vehicle searches ranged from saying it would have little practical effect to calling it “scary” and “disturbing,” all of them agreed that the decision marked a drastic departure from the court’s precedent.

In an April 29 decision that found the justices more deeply divided than a 4-2 split might suggest on its face, the court adopted the federal automobile exception to the search warrant requirement.

The exception allows police officers with probable cause to search a motor vehicle without a warrant even when there are no exigent circumstances.

Finding that Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution “affords no greater protection” than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the six-justice court—Justice Correale F. Stevens did not participate in the case—ruled in Commonwealth v. Gary to adopt the federal exception, which requires no additional exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle.

Justice Seamus P. McCaffery wrote in a 62-page opinion announcing the judgment of the court that there is “no compelling reason” to interpret the state constitution as affording greater protection than the U.S. Constitution with regard to warrantless motor-vehicle searches.

McCaffery said adopting the federal standard will clear up decades of “fractured jurisprudence” with regard to warrantless vehicle searches and will make it easier for police officers to make tough calls in high-pressure situations.

“The consistent and firm requirement for probable cause is a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles, whose inherent mobility and the endless factual circumstances that such mobility engenders constitute a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of probable cause in the first instance in the field,” McCaffery said.

McCaffery was joined by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice J. Michael Eakin.

Justice Thomas G. Saylor joined in the result but wrote a concurring opinion to note that he found “inconsistency in the court’s rejection of bright-line rules restraining law enforcement as a means of protecting individual rights, while simultaneously embracing such rules when they facilitate law enforcement.”

Steven F. Fairlie, a criminal defense attorney at Fairlie & Lippy in North Wales, Pa., said the justices in Gary made a “180-degree turn” away from state Supreme Court precedent.

“It’s a huge change in the law because you used to have greater protection under Pennsylvania law than under the federal constitution and now it’s exactly the same,” Fairlie said. Pennsylvania citizens “have lost that greater protection,” he added.

Kevin V. Mincey, a criminal defense attorney at Mincey & Fitzpatrick in Philadelphia, said it was “mind-boggling” that the court would so radically depart not just from its own previous rulings but from the long-held tenet of Pennsylvania law that the state constitution affords more protection for its citizens’ privacy than the U.S. Constitution does.

Mincey said the court’s decision is “dangerous” in that it gives law enforcement greater deference to decide when it’s necessary to conduct vehicle searches, thus increasing the opportunities for abuse.

By removing the exigent circumstances layer, Mincey said, the only thing that now stands between law enforcement and the inside of a citizen’s vehicle is an officer’s determination of whether probable cause exists.

- Read more in an upcoming edition of Pennsylvania Law Weekly.