June 21, 1997

Court Disallows Drugs Found In Warrantless Search

The decision was a victory for individual privacy rights which the state Supreme Court has been expanding in recent years.

Drug evidence seized by state troopers during a traffic stop in Lackawanna County is inadmissible, the state Superior Court ruled in a decision that explores how far police may go in warrantless searches of automobiles.

A panel of judges ruled that 78 grams of marijuana found in a car engine cannot be used as evidence in the case.

The decision was a victory for individual privacy rights, which the state Supreme Court has been expanding in recent years.

The Superior Court judges ruled police need a warrant before they can search all areas of a car unless there is both probable cause and immediate action, such as a public safety concern or the chance the suspect might flee or destroy criminal evidence.

In making its decision, the appeals court looked at what constitutes probable cause and urgent circumstances.

The defendant’s attorney, Patrick M. Rogan, had requested the evidence be suppressed, and the judge granted the motion.

The Assistant District Attorney appealed, argued there was sufficient probable cause that the car contained evidence, therefore making a warrantless search valid. The prosecution also raised the possibility that weapons might have been in the vehicle and that traffic in the area posed a safety concern.

The case involves a traffic stop March 31, 1995, on Interstate 81. The state trooper pulled over a dilapidated car after he saw it changing lanes and, as he approached the vehicle, noticed a strong smell of marijuana. The trooper called for backup while questioning the driver and the passenger.

When backup arrived, officers patted down the men and found what was believed to be a marijuana seed in the defendant’s pocket. The men were handcuffed and were told the officers were going to search the car.
After the troopers found the 78 grams of marijuana, in one gram bags, in the air ducts in the engine compartment, they charged the men with having drugs for sale, drug possession, criminal conspiracy and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Attorney Rogan had questioned whether the marijuana odor and seed were probable cause to obtain a warrant to search the entire car if one had been sought. The Assistant District Attorney had contented a magistrate would have authorized police to act.

But the Superior Court judges found nothing to indicate any urgent circumstances requiring a warrantless search. The troopers had control of the vehicle and the suspects were handcuffed and moved away from the car, the opinion said. Troopers also had found no contraband in the trunk or passenger compartments.
“Therefore, even though probable cause existed, a warrantless search of the vehicle was unreasonable,” the panel wrote.

The court also specifically addressed the prosecution’s argument that traffic posed a safety concern and made a warrantless search necessary. Under the scenario, the judges said, any car that is stopped on the side of a busy highway would be subject to a full search.
“We are not willing to create such a rule,” they wrote.

The Scranton Times, June 21, 1997