Erowid
 
 
Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Psychedelic Insights Survey
Have you ever taken a psychedelic and had an
experience that was psychologically insightful?
Help our researcher friends at Johns Hopkins & take their Survey!
US Supreme Court Limits Police Searches of Vehicles
Commentary on Arizona v. Gant, 07-542
by Earth Erowid
Apr 30, 2009
Citation:   Erowid E. "US Supreme Court Limits Police Searches of Vehicles". Erowid.org. Apr 30, 2009. Erowid.org/freedom/courts/supreme/supreme_case7_comment1.shtml.
Arizona v. Gant, 07-542
CERTIORI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ARIZONA
[Argued Oct 7, 2008 -- Decided Apr 21, 2009]

Summary
On April 21, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant, adding new limits to when and how police can search the passenger compartments of vehicles. This decision requires that police searches be either to find evidence of the crime for which the suspect is being arrested or as a quick search for weapons that the suspect could reach. The Arizona v. Gant ruling marks an important change in Fourth Amendment law.

Background
Following the Supreme Court's 1981 ruling in a case often simply called "Belton" (New York v. Belton), police have generally been allowed to, without a warrant, search the entire passenger compartment of any vehicle that a person being arrested has been driving or (in certain circumstances) has just been a passenger in. The justification for Belton had developed through several previous decisions and was built on the idea that a person being arrested can constitutionally be searched for both weapons and evidence, and that, further, the arresting officer can check the suspect's "area of immediate control" for weapons or evidence of any crime. The Court's new decision in Arizona v. Gant explicitly overturns the Belton decision (with the majority opinion claiming Belton has been misread for the last 28 years) and sets new rules for what searches are allowable by police during car-related arrests.

The New Rule
The new rule put in place by the Arizona v. Gant decision adds additional restrictions to police searches. It is summarized by the Court as "Police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest." The Court specifically rejects the idea that police can justify vehicle searches in the case of traffic violations or other types of crime where there is no possibility of finding additional evidence of the crime (failure to pay alimony, driving without a license, failure to appear in court, etc.). This new rule continues to allow "Terry"-type searches for weapons anywhere that could reasonably be considered within the reach of the suspect, but only if the suspect still has access to those areas at the time of the search. This decision clearly disallows what has been common practice for police over the last two decades: stop a car for a traffic offense, pull the driver out of the car and have them lean against the car, or put them in the back seat of the squad car, or even handcuff them, while an officer searches the vehicle.

Does Not Stop Probable-Cause Searches
This ruling continues to allow police to search passenger compartments of vehicles when they have probable cause to believe that they will find evidence of a crime, including traffic stops that lead to the common "smelled marijuana" search. However, officers must now have at least some justification for searching a vehicle other than a traffic offense.

A driver pulled over and arrested for making a drug purchase on a street corner can have his car searched upon arrest since the arresting officer has probably cause to believe that there is evidence of the crime in the vehicle. A driver pulled over for excessive speeding can generally not have his car searched upon arrest as long as the driver does not pose any credible threat to the officer and the officer has no valid reason to suspect that there is evidence of another crime in the car.

Unusual Majority
The decision was authored by Stevens, one of the most liberal judges on the current court, and was joined by Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Scalia; though Scalia penned a separate concurring opinion with an even more restrictive view of when police should be allowed to search vehicles without warrants. On the dissenting side were Alito, Roberts, Kennedy, and Breyer, whose primary arguments against the decision centered on maintaining the status quo, upholding the concept of "stare decisis" which suggests that previous legal reasonings should be continued unless there is an overwhelming need to change them.

This is an unusual grouping of justices to take power away from police officers, including two of the most left-wing justices (Stevens and Ginsburg) and two of the most right-wing justices (Scalia and Thomas). The newest two justices (Alito and Roberts), a left-moderate (Breyer), and a right-moderate (Kennedy) formed the minority.

Scalia stated that he joins the majority in this ruling, despite not agreeing completely, in order to avoid a "4-to-1-to-4" opinion, and because he believes the new ruling will result in fewer "plainly unconstitutional searches".

Selected Quotes from the Decision
Clarification, not rejection of Belton
Here the majority argues that their new ruling is a clarifies Belton, rather than overturning it:
Despite the textual and evidentiary support for the Arizona Supreme Court's reading of Belton, our opinion has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. [...] Accordingly, we reject this reading of Belton and hold that the Chimel rationale authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Stevens writing for the majority)
Expansive Belton reading common
The majority quotes former justice O'Connor describing how common the previous reading of Belton had become:
As Justice O'Connor observed, "lower court decisions seem now to treat the ability to search a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent occupant as a police entitlement rather than as an exception justified by the twin rationales of Chimel." Thornton, 541 U. S., at 624 (Opinion concurring in part)
Expansive Belton reading common
The majority also quotes Scalia from a previous case, with him saying how common the practice of Belton-justified searching had become:
SCALIA has similarly noted that, although it is improbable that an arrestee could gain access to weapons stored in his vehicle after he has been handcuffed and secured in the backseat of a patrol car, cases allowing a search in "this precise factual scenario . . . are legion." [...] Indeed, some courts have upheld searches under Belton "even when . . . the handcuffed arrestee has already left the scene." 541 U. S., at 628 (same). (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Stevens writing for the majority)
New standard of "reasonable to believe"?
The majority opinion seems to set a new standard of evidence for when police can search a vehicle, coming from a concurrence written by Scalia in Thornton v. United States in 2004:
Although it does not follow from Chimel, circumstances unique to the automobile context alsojustify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is "reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in thevehicle." Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615, 632 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment). [...]

Consistent with the holding in Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615 (2004), and following the suggestion in JUSTICE SCALIA's opinion concurring in the judgment in that case, id., at 632, we also conclude that circumstances unique to the automobile context justify a search incident to arrest when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.

[...]or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Stevens writing for the majority)
Concurrence: New standard still too expansive
Scalia argues that the new ruling does not go far enough in rejecting the previous standard:
In my view we should simply abandon the Belton-Thornton charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto "reasonable" only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Scalia writing in concurrence)
Concurrence: Officer safety argument without merit
Scalia argues that the officer safety reasoning is simply without merit:
Law enforcement officers face a risk of being shot whenever they pull a car over. But that risk is at its height at the time of the initial confrontation; and it is not at all reduced by allowing a search of the stopped vehicle after the driver has been arrested and placed in the squad car. I observed in Thornton that the government had failed to provide a single instance in which a formerly restrained arrestee escaped to retrieve a weapon from his own vehicle, 541 U. S., at 626; Arizona and its amici have not remedied that significant deficiency in the present case. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Scalia writing in concurrence)
Concurrence: Reasonable to overturn Belton
Scalia argues that it is reasonable to overturn the previous precedent:
JUSTICE ALITO insists that the Court must demand a good reason for abandoning prior precedent. That is true enough, but it seems to me ample reason that the precedent was badly reasoned and produces erroneous (in this case unconstitutional) results. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Scalia writing in concurrence)
Dissent: Breaks with tradition of "Belton rule"
Alito, dissenting, writes that the decision is wrong because it breaks with a well-worn Belton tradition:
If there was reliance in Dickerson, there certainly is substantial reliance here. The Belton rule has been taught to police officers for more than a quarter century. Many searches--almost certainly including more than a few that figure in cases now on appeal--were conducted in scrupulous reliance on that precedent. It is likely that, on the very day when this opinion is announced, numerous vehicle searches will be conducted in good faith by police officers who were taught the Belton rule. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Alito writing in dissent)
Dissent: Why is new standard "reason-to-believe"?
Alito, dissenting, asks why the new rule would use the new standard "reason-to-believe" (the majority actually writes it as "reasonable to believe"):
The second part of the Court's new rule, which the Court takes uncritically from JUSTICE SCALIA's separate opinion in Thornton, raises doctrinal and practical prob-lems that the Court makes no effort to address. Why, for example, is the standard for this type of evidence-gathering search "reason to believe" rather than probable cause? And why is this type of search restricted to evidence of the offense of arrest? It is true that an arrestee's vehicle is probably more likely to contain evidence of the crime of arrest than of some other crime, but if reason-to-believe is the governing standard for an evidence-gathering search incident to arrest, it is not easy to see why an officer should not be able to search when the officer has reason to believe that the vehicle in questionp ossesses evidence of a crime other than the crime of arrest. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Alito writing in dissent)
Dissent: New ruling confusing and dangerous to police
Alito, dissenting, writes that the new rule for vehicle searches is confusing because it could mean police can't protect themselves as easily from hidden weapons:
I do not understand the Court's decision to reach the following situations. First, it is not uncommon for an officer to arrest some but not all of the occupants of a vehicle. The Court's decision in this case does not address the question whether in such a situation a search of the passenger compartment may be justified on the ground that the occupants who are not arrested could gain access to the car and retrieve a weapon or destroy evidence. Second, there may be situations in which an arresting officer has cause to fear that persons who were not passengers in the car might attempt to retrieve a weapon or evidence from the car while the officer is still on the scene. The decision in this case, as I understand it, does not address that situation either. (Arizona v. Gant 2009, Alito writing in dissent)
See also : Supreme Court Privacy / Fourth Amendment Decisions