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.
We all know that texting while driving is dangerous; it distracts the driver from what’s going on on the road. Anti-texting ads have become popular on T.V., and it seems the general public has become increasingly aware of the dangers of texting and driving. So far, thirty-three states that have outlawed texting while driving. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order (EO) directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving. ‘The Federal ban sends a very clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable,’ said Transportation Secretary Ray H. LaHood. But do text-ban laws really help the problem?
Intriguingly, a recent study found that laws banning texting while driving did not result in a decrease in accidents, injuries, or fatalities and actually may have led to a slight increase in these harms. Linda C. Fentiman, A New Form of Wmd? Driving with Mobile Device and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, 81 UMKC L. Rev. 133, 135 (2012). Meanwhile, states that have banned cell phone use completely have seen an improvement in highway safety. 13 U. Pitt. J. Tech. L. & Pol’y 1. Is that the answer? Are complete bans on cell phone use in cars the only way to solve the problem?
Instead of waiting for the state law that banned texting while driving to have a deterrent effect, the New Jersey appeals court has decided to take its own action. In a recent case, the court held that someone who is texting a driver from a remote location can be liable to injured people if the driver was distracted by the text and crashes. Kubert v. Best, 2013 WL 4512313 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Aug. 27, 2013). Plaintiffs Linda and David Kubert each lost their left legs when they were hit by an eighteen-year-old driver who was texting while driving and crossed the center-line of the road. Best, 2013 WL 4512313 at 3. The court held that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving, and the texter here had no such knowledge. Id. at. 5. In this case, the court found no evidence that the texter knew she was texting someone who was driving. Id.
“It is not generally foreseeable that every recipient of a text message who is driving will neglect his obligation to obey the law and will be distracted by the text. Like a call to voicemail or an answering machine, the sending of a text message by itself does not demand that the recipient take any action. ”Id. at 9. The remote texter was not held liable for the plaintiffs’ extreme injuries in this case. However, this decision signifies yet another danger of texting: courts may soon be able to hold you liable for what your texts cause others to do.