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NO AUTOMOBILE EXCEPTION EXISTS TO SEARCH WARRANT REQUIREMENT WHEN VEHICLE IS PARKED IN PRIVATE DRIVEWAY

The PA Supreme Court recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Loughnane, 72 MAP 2016 (November 22, 2017), holding that the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement does not apply to a defendant’s vehicle that is parked on his private residential driveway.

Police were investigating a hit and run involving the death of a young girl. Her boyfriend witnessed the accident and provided a description of the truck involved, including the fact that it had a loud exhaust. A truck fitting the description was subsequently observed by the boyfriend’s father, parked in a private driveway. After contacting the police, he was advised to have the boyfriend try to identify the truck and, the boyfriend did just that, after observing a picture taken by his father.

Police went to the location and identified the property on which the truck was parked and the truck as being owned by Loughnane. Attempts were made to locate Loughnane without success. Police would later testify that although they had been in touch with the District Attorney’s Office, obtaining a search warrant would have required that they again “contact the District Attorney’s Office and go over things, [and] type up the actual affidavit that goes along with the search warrant,” which they characterized as “time consuming,” taking “two to three hours.” Instead, police seized the vehicle.

After seizing the vehicle, police sought and obtained a warrant to search the vehicle. The search of the vehicle revealed no physical or forensic evidence. Thereafter, the boyfriend came to the police station and identified the truck by sight and sound as the vehicle that was involved in the accident.

Loughnane was charged with accidents involving death or personal injury. He subsequently filed an omnibus pretrial motion contending, inter alia, that police illegally seized his truck from his private property without a warrant and that as a result, all evidence obtained from the search after the seizure must be suppressed as fruits of the poisonous tree. The Commonwealth conceded that police had seized Loughnane’s truck from his private property, but contended that exigent circumstances permitted entry upon his private property and the seizure of the truck therefrom without a warrant.

The trial court found that there were no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless seizure of Loughnane’s truck from his residential driveway, rendering the seizure illegal under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Accordingly, the court suppressed the visual and sound identification of the truck made by the deceased girl’s boyfreind, concluding that they were the fruits of the unlawful seizure.

The Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court and, while the appeal was pending, the PA Supreme Court decided  Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014)  thereby adopting the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, “albeit without any majority rationale for doing so.” Specifically, Gary was designated an “Opinion Announcing the Judgment of the Court” (the “OAJC”) because, while a majority of the Court supported the adoption of the federal automobile exception, only a plurality joined in the rationale behind it.

The federal automobile exception permits the search and/or seizure of a vehicle without a warrant as long as police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains (or is itself) evidence of criminal activity. And, the federal automobile exception “has no separate exigency requirement.”

In the Commonwealth’s appeal to the Superior Court, the Commonwealth’s sole argument was that although Loughnane’s truck was seized from the curtilage of the home, exigent circumstances (i.e., the mobility of the vehicle and the possibility of inclement weather) existed to permit the warrantless seizure. The Superior Court first [incorrectly] held as a matter of law that a driveway can never constitute curtilage. Then, the Superior Court court, sua sponte, concluded that the automobile exception applied in Loughnane’s case after determining, as an issue of first impression, the automobile exception applies to vehicles parked in a defendant’s private driveway. Accordingly, it remanded the case for the suppression court to make a determination of whether police had probable cause to permit the warrantless seizure of his truck.

Challenging the ultimate holding of the Superior Court, Loughnane requested, and was granted, allowance of appeal to answer the following question: “Whether the Superior Court erred by holding that the automobile exception, adopted in Gary, allowed police to seize a vehicle from the defendant’s private residential driveway without a warrant?” (It should be noted that Loughnane had the assistance of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“PACDL”) as amicus in this appeal.)

Loughnane asserted that the Superior Court’s conclusion that the automobile exception applies to vehicles parked in a private residential driveway conflicted with United States Supreme Court precedent that has long distinguished between the seizure of a vehicle from public property and a seizure of a vehicle from private property. Accordingly, the automobile exception is per se inapplicable to vehicles parked in residential driveways.

The PA Supreme Court preliminarily noted, and the Commonwealth conceded, that “the Superior Court’s blanket statement that ‘driveways are not part of a home’s curtilage’ [was] a misstatement of the law.” Thereafter, the PA Supreme Court analyzed U.S. Supreme and appellate Court precedent as well as “a majority of the highest courts of our sister states” considering the issue raised by Loughnane on appeal. In doing so, the PA Supreme Court learned that those courts have consistently held that the automobile exception does not apply to a search and/or seizure of a vehicle parked on private residential property.

Additionally, the PA Supreme Court noted that, absent exigent circumstances, the concern about the inherent mobility of the vehicle does not apply because the chance to search and/or seize the vehicle is not fleeting. In such cases, the vehicle is parked where the defendant lives and it will typically either remain there or inevitably return to that location. Moreover, the PA Supreme Court noted that, because the vehicle is parked on a private residential driveway, the reduced expectation of privacy in a vehicle that has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court likewise does not pertain.

The Court concluded that the “public nature of automobile travel” as it “travels public thoroughfares” plainly has no application to a car parked in a person’s driveway. And, “to permit the automobile exception to excuse the warrant requirement for the seizure of the defendant’s vehicle parked on the defendant’s residential property would allow the exception to swallow the rule.”

CASE LINK: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/Majority%20Opinion%20%20VacatedRemanded%20%2010332881227769969.pdf?cb=1 

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