Editorial: Recent PA court ruling will undermine police accountability

Following a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, car searches will now be much less arduous for police. Contrary to the diction found in the fourth amendment of the Constitution, the court ruled to remove the “legal burden” that requires police officers to obtain a warrant before searching a vehicle.

After the decision made in this particular case, which involved a 2010 traffic stop that led to a warrantless vehicle search and marijuana seizure, Pennsylvania police will only need to meet one legal burden before searching your vehicle: probable cause.

The Oxford Companion to American Law describes probable cause as “information sufficient to warrant a prudent person’s belief that the wanted individual had committed a crime or that evidence of a crime or contraband would be found in a search.”

This vague definition — which is now the only verbiage restricting police officers from searching private citizens’ vehicles — not only makes it easy for police to arrest citizens for possession crimes, but also leaves police officers’ public accountabilities exceedingly susceptible to erosion. A loss of police accountability has the potential to undermine public safety, certainly more so than, say, marijuana users.

With fewer legal boundaries, police will now have more room to commit abuses of power. Probable cause includes whatever “information” a police officer may deem suspicious. This may include the driver’s demeanor, appearance of the driver’s car and possibly even the driver’s race, depending on the police officer.

With every abuse of power, authorities can expect to see the public’s trust and faith in the police force decline with each offense to individual privacy. According to Justice Debra McCloskey Todd’s dissenting opinion on the decision, citizens will not be keen to see their fundamental liberties violated. Warrantless searches will inevitably contradict, “over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” McCloskey wrote.

This is problematic because with less trust will come less cooperation with law enforcement. People will not be willing to work with an unaccountable source of authority. They will have no incentive to assist officers who do not represent their constitutional rights and interests.

Not only do the consequences of this ruling have the potential to be societally devastating in regards to public welfare, but there was no reason to change the law in the present context.  

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, “There really was no pressing need [for the ruling]. The law was fine as it was.” 

The state’s crime rate has been steadily decreasing over the past decade, so why did the original Pennsylvania search standards need modification?

Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the ACLU, blamed societal factors. 

“We’ve just seen a consistent devaluation of privacy rights in this country, and a lot of it has to do with the war on drugs and the war on terror, leading to more limitations,” Rose said.

The composition of the bench also makes the ruling questionable. The justices favoring the change included an ex-Philadelphia police officer, a former Philadelphia district attorney, a former Cumberland County district attorney and a past prosecutor with the state attorney general’s office — all professions that benefit from deregulation.

 Unfortunately, despite the lack of a pressing reason for the ruling, it is impossible for the decision to be reviewed by the US Supreme Court because the original law was based on the Pennsylvania — not federal — Constitution. However, the ruling does leave open the possibility for future cases regarding the new interpretation of the law based on potential police abuses.

What can be gathered from this case is that the inevitable re-opening of the public versus private debate will eventually prove that the court’s decision is out of step with the interests of Pennsylvania citizens.