Can I appeal a criminal conviction from a car search?

We get many questions from clients on criminal law in Pennsylvania, including, most recently, the one that headlines this blog: “Can I appeal a criminal conviction from a car search?” Thanks to a significant development just a few months ago, the answer may be ‘yes.’

Back in 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court cleared the way for warrantless searches after Commonwealth vs. Gary. In this case, police noticed the scent of marijuana upon stopping a driver. A subsequent search revealed 2 pounds of marijuana. At the time, the court found the suspicion of contraband a valid reason for the search, clearing the way for searches without warrants.

Fast forward to 2016, when Philadelphia police stopped driver Keith Alexander, who admitted to smoking a “blunt” and handed over a bag of marijuana. A further search found a locked metal box containing 10 bundles of heroin. Alexander was then charged and convicted as a drug dealer, but his lawyers appealed that the search was a violation of his right to privacy.

After that criminal appeal, in a December 2020 reversal of the Gary decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of Alexander, saying that police search procedures must now not only require probable cause to believe that a crime occurred but also emergency circumstances that require immediate action. Proponents noted that the decision preserves citizen rights without imposing undue hardships on police. Dissenters argued that the opinion will impede effective enforcement. Philadelphia police have, according to one news report, been stopping an average of 2,000 drivers per month. Yet, among those stops, contraband was found only 12 percent of the time.

If you are looking for an attorney who handles criminal appeals in Pennsylvania, it may help to talk to someone on our criminal defense team. Please reach out to us. Our firm is recognized as a leader in litigating criminal defense cases throughout Pennsylvania.