Pubdate: Wed, 28 May 2014
Source: Pottstown Mercury (PA)
Copyright: 2014 The Mercury, a Journal Register Property
Author: Eric Boehm, PA Independent
Page: A1


If the police stop you in Pennsylvania, they don't need a warrant to
search your car. And soon, you could be in trouble even if they find
nothing. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that
police are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant. The state
General Assembly, meanwhile, is moving forward with a bill that would
give cops the authority to arrest people caught with "secret
compartments" in their vehicles, even if there is nothing illegal in
those suspicious containers.

It adds up to greater authority for police and prosecutors but less
privacy for Pennsylvania drivers.

The split-decision from the Supreme Court allows police to conduct
searches of cars based only on probable cause - that is, as long as
the officers conducting the search have a reason to believe there are
illegal goods or evidence of a crime hidden inside the vehicle.

Writing for the majority in the 4-2 ruling, Justice Seamus McCaffery,
a Democrat, said requiring police to have probable cause for a search
is "a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches," and
brings state law in line with federal law allowing warrantless
searches of vehicles.

Defense attorneys and civil liberties groups disagree.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said he
worries that killing the requirement for a search warrant eliminates
an important check on police power.

"I think getting a warrant is significant because it is one more
deterrent against bad police behavior," he told PA Independent. "There
was really no reason for the court to overturn the law. We have a long
history of strong protections for individual rights in

Some states have constitutional language requiring a warrant before a
vehicle can be searched, but Pennsylvania's does not. In the ruling,
McCaffery said that has caused a wide range of confusing and
contradictory rulings from state courts that have examined the issue.

"To provide greater uniformity in the assessment of individual cases
and more consistency with regard to the admissibility of the fruits of
vehicular searches based on probable cause, a more easily applied rule
- - such as that of the federal automobile exception - is called for,"
he wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, a Democrat,
said the court was "eviscerating" longstanding privacy protections by
adopting the "diluted federal automobile exemption." "By so doing, our
Court heed

lessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against
unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their
birthright," Todd wrote.

But law enforcement in Pennsylvania might soon get a gift from the
Legislature, as well.

On the same day the Supreme Court ruling was announced, the House
Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation making it a crime
to possess a car with "secret compartments." If the bill becomes law,
anyone caught with such compartments could be charged with a fifirst-
degree misdemeanor and have their vehicle seized by police - even if
the compartments hold nothing but air.

A conviction would carry up to five years in prison and a $10,000

State Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, the bill's sponsor, said law
enforcement asked her to introduce the bill. Police are concerned
about vehicles that pass through Pennsylvania on a well-known
smuggling route between New York and Florida.

Guns, drugs and even people can be smuggled inside those secret
compartments, she said.

If police happen to catch a smuggler with illicit goods, they don't
need any additional laws to arrest the suspect. But if the bill
passes, law enforcement will have another way to stop the suspected
smugglers - even if they aren't carrying anything, Harper said.

"The objective is to get those cars and trucks off the road, so if
you're using the same truck to drive back and forth between Florida
and New York and we catch you doing it, then we can get it off the
road," Harper said.

To find an example of how that law works in practice, look no further
than Pennsylvania's neighbor to the west.

Last year, Ohio made "secret compartments" illegal. The Ohio law, like
the proposed bill in Pennsylvania, specifies the compartment must be
"used or intended to be used" for the concealment or transportation of
illegal substances.

But in December, Norman Gurley became the first person in Ohio
arrested for having a secret compartment in his vehicle. The
compartment was empty.

According to local news reports, police in Lorain County stopped
Gurley and claimed to smell marijuana in the car, giving them probable
cause to search the vehicle, which is also legal under Ohio law.

The cops found no drugs, but they noticed wires leading to the back of
the car. The police eventually uncovered the illegal compartment,
which was empty, and arrested Gurley.

"Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges
on the suspect," Lt. Michael Combs of the state highway patrol told

If Harper's bill becomes law, Pennsylvania would join a small but
growing number of states in which secret compartments in vehicles have
been made illegal at the request of law enforcement groups and
district attorneys.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University,
views the growth of those statues as the result of state Legislatures
giving little thought to the consequences of adding more crimes to the
state code.

"It is part of the expanding criminalization of America where
virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police," Turley wrote
in December about the Gurley case.

Harper says she only wants to target those who are using the
compartments for criminal behavior. The bill was amended in committee
to require law enforcement to prove a compartment exists with the
intent to be used for criminal activity before a vehicle can be taken.

Harper's bill was approved with a unanimous vote in the House
Judiciary Committee on April 29 and sent to the full House for
consideration. There is no timetable for a floor vote.
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