Pennsylvania Supreme Court Clarifies Limits On Consent Searches By Police Officer

October 26, 2018

One of the most fundamental and often litigated rights citizens possess is the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by police officers. Where the line is between what is reasonable and unreasonable can often be very fact dependent. Police officers will often seek consent for a search because if someone willingly relinquishes their rights, the officer often cannot be said to be engaging in violating rights that were freely relinquished. However, the question can often be: consent for what exactly?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently addressed the question of what the scope of a person's consent to a search is. In the case of Commonwealth v. Valdivia that was recently decided, the Court found that the officers in that case had exceeded the scope of consent. The case involved a traffic stop in which the defendant was driving in Centre County, PA and was stopped for failing to properly signal a lane change. The defendant's explanation for having a rental car was contradictory and the officers observed several wrapped gift packages in the car, which is a method which drug traffickers use to conceal narcotics near the holidays. The officers asked if they could search the car. The defendant consented to the search by the two officers. The officers then placed the defendant in the police car as it was cold outside and then called the K-9 unit for a dog search and the K-9 took approximately 40 minutes to arrive. The packages were ultimately searched, found to contain narcotics, and defendant was arrested.

At defendant's trial, he objected to the search and asked for the evidence to be suppressed because he consented to a search by the two original officers and the excessive time elapsed and use of a dog was an impermissible expansion of the search. The trial court disagreed finding that the search was proper and defendant was ultimately convicted. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that while the consent was voluntary, the officers had exceeded the scope of consent. The Court stated that "we must decide whether a reasonable person under the circumstances would have understood [defendant]'s general consent given to two human officers to include a search conducted by a later produced narcotics detection dog. As our discussion of the precedent above makes clear, these are two categorically different searches."

The Court stated further that "we cannot conclude that a reasonable person in [defendant]'s position would have understood that his consent to allow two human officers to search his vehicle would somehow operate to permit the search to be conducted by a canine trained in drug detection." The Court clarified that consent to search does not give the police carte blanche to do whatever they wish. In addition, the Court rejected the argument that the defendant should have revoked his consent when the K-9 unit showed up stating that the "scope of a search is controlled by the scope of consent given, which, in turn, is determined pursuant to a reasonable person standard under the circumstances at the time the exchange between the officer and the suspect occurs. The burden is on law enforcement officials to conduct a search within those parameters. An individual is not required to police the police; absent another exception to the warrant requirement, when a search exceeds the scope of an individual's given consent, the search is illegal regardless of whether the individual objected or revoked his or her consent."

The Supreme Court thus reversed the Defendant's conviction and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Court's opinion. It is rarely a good idea to consent to a search but if you are involved in a case where you have, raising the proper issues can make all the difference. The lawyers at Conway Schadler have experience that can make the difference in these types of situations. Please contact our offices for a free consultation so we can discuss how this substantial experience can be used to your benefit.