Commonwealth v. Alexander

Decision Date22 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 30 EAP 2019,30 EAP 2019
Citation243 A.3d 177
Parties COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee v. Keith ALEXANDER, Appellant
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court


We granted Appellant Keith Alexander ("Alexander")’s petition for allowance of appeal asking this Court to overrule or limit Commonwealth v. Gary , 625 Pa. 183, 91 A.3d 102 (2014) (OAJC), a plurality result announcing that, without limitation, the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment1 to the United States Constitution applies in Pennsylvania.2 The United States Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence "recognizes the exception in a categorical manner and the lawfulness of the search ‘do[es] not require an assessment of whether the policy justifications underlying the exception, which may include exigency-based considerations, are implicated in a particular case.’ " Missouri v. McNeely , 569 U.S. 141, 150 n.3, 133 S.Ct. 1552, 185 L.Ed.2d 696 (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 569–70, 111 S.Ct. 1982, 114 L.Ed.2d 619 (1991) ). What Gary did not settle is whether the federal automobile exception is consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.3 We have accepted the current appeal to answer that question. For the reasons discussed in this opinion, we hold that Article I, Section 8 affords greater protection to our citizens than the Fourth Amendment, and reaffirm our prior decisions: the Pennsylvania Constitution requires both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of an automobile.

I. Factual and Procedural History

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on May 11, 2016, Philadelphia Police Officer Joshua Godfrey and his partner stopped a vehicle driven by Alexander. The officers smelled marijuana, and Alexander stated that he and his female passenger, who owned the vehicle, had just smoked a blunt. Officer Godfrey arrested Alexander and placed him in the patrol vehicle, while the passenger was removed from the car. The officers searched the interior for more marijuana but found only a metal box behind the driver's seat. The box opened with a key Alexander had on his keychain and contained bundles of heroin. Alexander was charged with, inter alia, possession with intent to deliver and filed a suppression motion challenging the search, which was denied. At a bench trial, he was convicted of possession with intent to deliver.

The Superior Court affirmed, denying Alexander's claim that the officers (1) lacked probable cause to search the vehicle and (2) needed a warrant to search the lockbox. The Superior Court noted that, under Gary, all that was needed to search a vehicle is probable cause and the scope of the search extends to any container that may contain the relevant items. As the lockbox could have contained marijuana, the search was lawful. Alexander argued that Gary should be overruled, which the Superior Court observed was done to preserve the issue for this Court's review. We thereafter accepted review on the following question:

In this case involving the warrantless search of a locked metal box in a car following the arrest of the driver, should not this court decide whether Commonwealth v. Gary , 625 Pa. 183, 91 A.3d 102 (2014), should be overruled or limited as being inconsistent with privacy protections under Article I, § 8, and this Court's decisions protecting privacy through the warrant requirement?

Commonwealth v. Alexander , ––– Pa. ––––, 218 A.3d 380 (2019).

II. Gary and the Automobile Exception

The parties differ on whether the outcome of the suppression motion would have been different prior to Gary . What is clear is that the federal exception as adopted by Gary authorized the instant search. See United States v. Ross , 456 U.S. 798, 825, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982) (holding that probable cause to search extends to every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search); Wyoming v. Houghton , 526 U.S. 295, 302, 119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408 (1999) (holding that Ross extends to objects owned by a passenger; "Passengers, no less than drivers, possess a reduced expectation of privacy with regard to the property that they transport in cars ...."). We now turn to how the federal automobile exception came to govern claims challenging warrantless automobile searches in Pennsylvania.


In Gary , Justice McCaffery, joined by then-Chief Justice Castille and Justice Eakin, traced the development of the automobile exception in federal court and its corresponding development in our courts. The automobile exception was first recognized in Carroll v. United States , 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925), and the justification for upholding the search was largely based on the impracticability of securing a warrant given that "the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction ...." Id . at 153, 45 S.Ct. 280. While Carroll noted that "[i]n cases where the securing of a warrant is reasonably practicable" an officer must do so, id . at 156, 45 S.Ct. 280, over time that limitation gradually disappeared. In Chambers v. Maroney , 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 26 L.Ed.2d 419 (1970), the Court upheld a search under the automobile exception where the officers transported the vehicle to the police station and searched it there without a warrant. The Court concluded that if the officers could immediately search the car under Carroll , then they may also search it later. That holding is at odds with Carroll ’s observation that officers must obtain a warrant when feasible. The Maroney Court reconciled that inconsistency by declaring that the preference for a magistrate's judgment on probable cause is questionable because officers could seize the car until the magistrate ruled on whether probable cause to search existed. The Maroney Court believed it was arguable that seizing the car and its occupants was a greater intrusion than simply immediately searching the car. "But which is the ‘greater’ and which the ‘lesser’ intrusion is itself a debatable question and the answer may depend on a variety of circumstances." Id . at 51-52, 90 S.Ct. 1975. The Court found it preferable to declare that either course is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The high Court also began to justify the automobile exception on the notion that individuals have reduced expectations of privacy in their automobiles and expect less privacy in their vehicles due to "the pervasive governmental regulation of, and local law enforcement's extensive contact with, motor vehicles." Gary , 91 A.3d at 110. The high Court used the mobility and diminished privacy rationales together to justify a warrantless search in California v. Carney , 471 U.S. 386, 105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985). "The Carney Court invoked both the ready mobility and the reduced privacy justifications to hold that a warrantless search, based on probable cause, of a fully mobile motor home parked in a public lot did not violate the Fourth Amendment[.]" Gary , 91 A.3d at 111. Once those justifications were jointly invoked to justify searches it became clear that "application of the automobile exception to the requirement for a search warrant requires only a finding of probable cause and not a separate, distinct, or additional finding of exigency." Id . There is no question that the combination of the two rationales justifies the federal exception. Collins v. Virginia , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 1663, 1669–70, 201 L.Ed.2d 9 (2018) ("The ‘ready mobility’ of vehicles served as the core justification for the automobile exception for many years. Later cases then introduced an additional rationale based on the pervasive regulation of vehicles capable of traveling on the public highways.") (quotation marks and citations omitted).

Turning to Pennsylvania law, Justice McCaffery's opinion concluded that "the unmistakable implication from our cases until the mid–1990s is that this Court considered the federal and state Constitutions coterminous" regarding the contours of the automobile exception. Gary , 91 A.3d at 112. Reviewing the Pennsylvania decisions in this area at length, his opinion observed that some cases before that time did suggest that our own constitution provided some heightened protections. The writing opined that those cases were mistakenly following the high Court's original Carroll rule and failed to keep up with doctrinal evolvements that embraced considerations beyond the inherent mobility of a vehicle. "However, while the federal automobile exception evolved to require only probable cause to search an automobile, our decisional law did not so evolve, but rather maintained its adherence to the original formulation of the exception." Id . at 120.

The Gary Court did not dispute that our cases eventually broke from the federal model, and both the lead opinion and the dissent identified the mid-1990s as the relevant timeframe. The reason for that shift was due, in part, to our seminal decision in Commonwealth v. Edmunds , 526 Pa. 374, 586 A.2d 887 (1991), which rejected United States v. Leon , 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984) (holding that exclusionary rule does not apply if officers acted in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalided search warrant) as inconsistent with Article I, Section 8. " Article I, Section 8 is unshakably linked to a right of privacy in this Commonwealth," 586 A.2d at 898, and "[t]he history of Article I, Section 8 ... indicates that the purpose underlying the exclusionary rule in this Commonwealth is quite distinct from the purpose underlying the exclusionary rule under the 4th Amendment, as articulated by the majority in Leon. " Id . at 897. While Edmunds involved an application of the exclusionary rule, our holding was tethered to the fundamental concern for privacy within our own constitution, and our decision

reiterated our statement in

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