The Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable police searches of your property. But what about your car; can the police search your car without probable cause ? The answer is “maybe.” The police are allowed to search your vehicle whenever they have the right to tow your car. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6309.2(a)(1) If you are stopped without a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration or if you license is suspended, the police may have your car towed and impounded if the car is blocking traffic or poses a safety concern. If the police have the right tow your car then they are permitted to conduct an “inventory search” without any warrant or probable cause. Pennsylvania courts allow an “inventory search” of a car because it is considered different from an “investigatory search.” Investigatory searches are done after police have a warrant or probable cause to search for evidence of a crime, while inventory searches are done only to keep track of your belongings left in your vehicle being towed. Of course, if the police find anything illegal in your car when they conduct an inventory search then you will be arrested for a crime.
The police sometimes abuse their power to conduct inventory searches. In fact, there are many cases involving defendants who were pulled over for minor traffic violations who then had their cars towed and searched, revealing contraband that led to their arrest. These types of “inventory searches” were specifically disallowed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently. In Commonwealth v. Lagnella, 2013 WL 6823057, 2 (Pa. 2013) a defendant was stopped for failing to use his turn signal. The defendant’s license was suspended, and though his car was NOT blocking traffic or posing a public safety concern, the officer had the car towed and completed an inventory search prior to the towing. Lagnella, 2013 WL 6823057 at 2.
As you might have already guessed, during the inventory search the police office found guns and the defendant was arrested for possession of stolen guns. He was eventually convicted and imprisoned. Id. at 3. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the defendant’s conviction and held that the officer did not have the authority to tow the vehicle because the car did not pose a public safety concern. Id. at 11. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the inventory search was illegal and that the evidence (guns) found in the car could not be used against the defendant at trial.