Earlier this month, those paying attention to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s dealings were left a bit baffled. In a surprise move, the Commonwealth’s most elite judges ruled 4-2 to grant police the right to search cars without a warrant. And if that’s not scary enough, things could now get much, much worse.
To put the decision in Laymen’s terms, Justice Seamus McCafferty, writing for the majority opinion, noted that probable cause was sufficient protection for Pennsylvania citizens. As long as a police officer believes there may be illegal goods inside a vehicle, a search doesn’t require a warrant—so long as officers adhere to "uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict and inconsistency in this often-litigated area."
Not everyone felt that way.
“Their decision took away a recognized right belonging to citizens and swapped it for an extraneous gift to a law-enforcement establishment that’s already awash in perks, privileges and exceptions. Don’t recent news headlines already make it clear that there’s no shortage of police officers wiho feel they can do whatever they want whenever they want? Now, they don’t even need a warrant from a court to do it, either,” wrote PW scribe Josh Kruger after the decision was handed down.
But the state legislature could now make that decision a hell of a lot worse. How bad? How about getting arrested even if they search your car and find nothing.
The same day the Supreme Court made warrantless searches legal, the PA House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an Orwellian (there, I said it) bill that would actually outlaw “secret compartments” in automobiles.
The bill, introduced by Montgomery County Republican Kate Harper, is apparently aimed at drug traffickers. If convicted, offenders could face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine—even if the compartment is empty.
As an editorial at the York Daily Record noted, “pretty much any space created inside a vehicle that’s not visible by looking in a window could be construed as a “secret compartment” for smuggling.”
The proposed law in Pennsylvania may be new, but it is hardly unique. Several states have passed similar “secret compartment” laws with the intention of catching drug smugglers, which have resulted in dire situations. Like last year, when a 30-year-old Georgia man was arrested in Ohio for having a hidden compartment in his car, but nothing illegal in the compartment.
“[I]t's not clear why police searched the car for a hidden compartment. And it's certainly not apparent why an out-of-state resident faces charges and prison time over a peculiar local law that criminalizes...empty space,” wrote Reason.com of the arrest, which noted Normal Gurney, the black man in question, had no criminal record of which to speak.
If this passes in Pa., it’s not far-fetched to imagine similar situations occurring here.
Part of you might say this is merely the Stop-and-Frisking of suburbia and the state’s rural core—something with which Philly has been dealing for years. And sure, young urbanite, perhaps you don’t even own a car. But what’s to say a secret compartment in an automobile, if deemed law by the General Assembly and governor, doesn’t eventually become a secret compartment on a person’s clothes, or in your messenger bag? As we've seen with the buildup of our surveillance state in recent decades, the slope on laws like this is about as slippery as they come.