POLICE DO NOT NEED A WARRANT TO SEARCH OR SEIZE YOUR VEHICLE FROM YOUR OWN DRIVEWAY
In a matter of first impression, the PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Loughnane, No. 596 MDA 2014 (November 23, 2015), holding that if police have probable cause to search or seize a vehicle parked in a driveway at a private residence, they do not need to first obtain a search warrant before conducting a search or seizing that vehicle.
On July 24, 2012, at approximately 2:23 a.m., Wilkes-Barre City Police began an investigation into the death of an individual who had been struck and killed by a motor vehicle.
A vehicle fitting the description of the pickup truck that struck the victim was located on August 8, 2012 in a driveway at 71 Liberty Street in Ashley, PA. That vehicle was subsequently identified by a witness as the pickup truck that struck the victim.
During the early morning hours of August 9, 2012, the pickup truck was seized from the driveway at 71 Liberty Street and towed to police headquarters and placed in the basement garage. No search warrant was obtained before the pickup truck was seized from the driveway although nothing prevented police from first obtaining a search warrant prior to the seizure of the truck.
At the time Defendant’s pickup truck was seized without a warrant, it was located on private property and Defendant was not in custody. He was subsequently arrested on December 18, 2012, and charged with one count of accidents involving death or personal injury, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3742(a).
Defendant filed a number of pre-trial challenges, including a Motion challenging the lawfulness of the search and seizure of his vehicle from his private driveway. The trial court granted Defendant’s Motion as it related to the search and seizure of the truck from his driveway. The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that Defendant lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in his driveway since his truck was plainly visible from the street.
Whether the federal automobile exception allowing the warrantless search of an automobile based on probable cause as adopted by Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014), applies to vehicles that are parked in driveways of private residences?
Commonwealth v. Gary applies to vehicles parked in driveways at private residences because driveways are not part of a home’s curtilage and an individual does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his driveway.
A summary of the reasoning supplied by the Superior Court for this decision follows:
Pennsylvania courts have recognized that the protections afforded to individuals under both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the PA Constitution are applicable to the curtilage of a person’s home. The Superior Court has previously defined the curtilage of the home as places “where the occupants have a reasonable expectation of privacy that society is prepared to accept.” Curtilage, however, has not been extended to an individual’s driveway.
Historically, automobiles have been subject to an exception from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for two reasons: (1) the inherent mobility of the vehicle; and (2) a vehicle’s owner’s expectation of privacy is “significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office.”
In the instant appeal, Defendant claimed that he had an expectation of privacy for the location where his truck was parked, i.e. – his driveway. However, the Superior Court concluded that since the truck was visible from the street while parked in the Defendant’s driveway, the Defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his driveway.
Shortly after the trial court decided Defendant’s suppression issue regarding the search and seizure of his truck in his favor, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the federal automobile exception for automobile searches in the Gary case. As a result of the Gary decision, in order to conduct a warrantless search of an automobile, the police must establish probable cause; however, they are no longer required to establish exigent circumstances “beyond the mere mobility of a motor vehicle.”
Therefore, although the Defendant claimed that the Commonwealth did not adequately demonstrate that there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless seizure of his truck, the Superior Court concluded that in this case, the mere mobility of Defendant’s truck, by itself, was adequate for a finding of exigent circumstances.
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