Resolving tension in its cases, Pennsylvania holds that its state automobile exception requires both probable cause and an actual exigency. Commonwealth v. Alexander, 2020 Pa. LEXIS 6439 (Dec. 22, 2020):
We granted Appellant Keith Alexander (“Alexander”)’s petition for allowance of appeal asking this Court to overrule or limit Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (OAJC), a plurality result announcing that, without limitation, the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution applies in Pennsylvania. 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 (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 569-70 (1991)). What Gary did not settle is whether the federal automobile exception is consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. 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.
. . .
VII. Conclusion and Mandate
As a result of today’s decision, we return to the pre-Gary application of our limited automobile exception under Article I, Section 8 of our Constitution, pursuant to which warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances; “one without the other is insufficient.” Luv, 735 A.2d at 93. “This dual requirement of probable cause and exigency is an established part of our state constitutional jurisprudence.” Hernandez, 935 A.2d at 1280. As to the renewed application of this principle, we share the confidence expressed by Justice Todd in her dissenting opinion in Gary, specifically that police officers are “eminently capable as trained professionals of making the basic assessment of whether it is reasonably practicable for them to seek a warrant, under all of the circumstances existing at the time they wish to search an automobile.” Gary, 91 A.3d at 159 (Todd, J., dissenting).
We are mindful, however, that in some future cases we may have to say that a police officer’s warrantless search was not justified by exigent circumstances. Difficulties in clarifying the scope of the exigency requirement will lead to debates about what exactly the Pennsylvania Constitution demands in a given situation. But so what? The long history of Article I, Section 8 and its heightened privacy protections do not permit us to carry forward a bright-line rule that gives short shrift to citizens’ privacy rights. In Ramos v. Louisiana, _ U.S. _, 140 S. Ct. 1390, 1411 (2020), the high Court overruled cases holding that the United States Constitution does not demand unanimous verdicts for felonies. Responding to concerns that stare decisis counseled against overruling, the Court responded:
In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others. But where is the justice in that? Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory. But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.
Id. at 1408.
We cannot offer a definition of exigency that will apply to all scenarios. No case law suggest that the exigency requirement in other scenarios is subject to precise definition. The basic formulation of exigencies recognizes that in some circumstances “the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 393-94 (1978) (internal quotation marks omitted). That inquiry is not amenable to per se rules and requires a consideration of the totality of the circumstances. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Davido, 106 A.3d 611, 623 (Pa. 2014) (“We do not suggest that domestic abuse cases create a per se exigent need for warrantless entry; rather, a reviewing court must assess the totality of the circumstances presented to the officer before the entry in order to determine if exigent circumstances relieved the officer of the duty to secure a warrant.”).
Obtaining a warrant is the default rule. If an officer proceeds to conduct a warrantless search, a reviewing court will be required to determine whether exigent circumstances existed to justify the officer’s judgment that obtaining a warrant was not reasonably practicable. That the universe of qualifying “exigent circumstances” is impossible to define with precision does not justify adopting the federal automobile exception any more than the inability to supply an objective definition of whether an expectation of privacy is “reasonable” justifies jettisoning the Fourth Amendment. See Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984) (“No single factor determines whether an individual legitimately may claim under the Fourth Amendment that a place should be free of government intrusion not authorized by warrant.”). Courts will have to decide, just as they did pre-Gary, whether exigent circumstances justified warrantless searches in discrete scenarios, with a focus on the particular facts.
Jurist: Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules police officers can no longer search vehicles without a warrant by Daniel Graziano:
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution offers greater protection to citizens from warrantless searches of their vehicles than does the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Prior to the ruling, Pennsylvania precedent held that the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment applied in Pennsylvania without exception.
Justice Christine Donohue, who penned the opinion for the majority, relied heavily on previous opinions from former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd in reaching her conclusion. Donohue quoted Todd, who believed that “[t]he absence of similar language in the Fourth Amendment suggests that Article I, Section 8 ‘was intended to protect an individual’s privacy interest in all of his or her possessions or things in any place they may be,’ including a vehicle.” Additionally, Todd was quoted as stating that Article 1, Section 8 provided citizens “a robust individual right of privacy in one’s papers and possessions, and protects that privacy right through its warrant requirements for searches of ‘any place’ such items may be found.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a warrant is always required. Mostly, usually, yes. How far will trial courts go to credit police claims of exigency?