Pennsylvania Superior Court: Warrantless Search of Pill Bottles in Car Unlawful

Filed under: Criminal Law, Drug Crimes by Contributor @ June 16, 2014

In Commonwealth v. Hudson, 2014 WL 2441931, 586 EDA 2013 (Pa.Super. 2014), the Pennsylvania Superior Court clarified when the police have probable cause to search pill bottles in one’s car. In Hudson, the police conducted a traffic stop due to a broken taillight. Before the officers reached the car to talk to the defendant, they noticed him reach towards the car’s center console. The officers searched the car, opened the center console, and found three pill bottles. Two of the bottles had the labels partially removed, while the third still had the defendant’s name on it. The pill bottles contained prescription pain medicine, and the defendant was arrested and charged with possession with intent to deliver.

As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held in Commonwealth v. Gary, 2014 WL 1686766 (Pa. 2014), all that is needed for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause. Thus, the issue here was whether the police had probable cause to conduct the search. The Court found that the pill bottles were not “immediately apparent” as contraband, and the mere fact that the defendant had them in his car did not establish probable cause. Additionally, the officer had no idea what was in the pill bottles. This meant that the search was not lawful. Effectively, the police needed more than just the observation of the pill bottles to establish probable cause.

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