Arizona v. Gant (2009)

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

The Fourth Amendment often appears to be on life support, however in Arizona v. Gant, it got a slight reprieve. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 with Stevens, joined by Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg voting in the majority. Not the usual grouping for a 5-4 decision. This case involves the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.

Tucson, Arizona police officers arrested Rodney Gant for driving with a suspended license. He was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car. The police then searched his vehicle and found a handgun and a plastic bag containing cocaine. In New York v. Belton, the Supreme Court held that police may search the entire passenger area of a vehicle as a “contemporaneous indigent” to a lawful arrest. Gant moved to suppress the admission of the handgun and cocaine claiming that no exceptions to the Fourth Amendment applied to his case. The trial court denied the motion but the Arizona court of appeals reversed and the Supreme Court affirmed the reversal.

The Court held:

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.

It is not reasonable to believe that a handcuffed arrestee locked in the back of the patrol car might access the vehicle at the time of the search. Therefore, only if it is reasonable to believe that the passenger compartment contains evidence of offense that led to the arrest, is the search allowed. Since Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, there is no evidence of that offense to justify a search. It would also appear that the trunk of the car is off limits. Oh what a logical mess we weave trying to preserve stare decisis.

The Court also held that:

The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel’s exception authorize a vehicle search only when there is a reasonable possibility of such access.

Vehicle searches incident to arrest are intended to prevent the arrestee from reaching for a weapon or destroying evidence. Under Chimel v. California (1969), police may search an area “within the immediate control” of the person arrested. In Chimel, J. White noted in his dissent:

Few areas of the law have been as subject to shifting constitutional standards over the last 50 years as that of the search “incident to an arrest.” There has been a remarkable instability in this whole area, which has seen at least four major shifts in emphasis. Today’s opinion makes an untimely fifth.

In Thornton v. United States (2004), a case similar to Gant but with the opposite finding, J. Scalia’s wrote in his concurrence:

When petitioner’s car was searched in this case, he was neither in, nor anywhere near, the passenger compartment of his vehicle. Rather, he was handcuffed and secured in the back of the officer’s squad car. The risk that he would nevertheless “grab a weapon or evidentiary ite[m]” from his car was remote in the extreme.

J. Scalia recognizes the absurdity of the officer safety or evidentiary preservation rationalizations in this case, but voted with the Thornton majority in expanding the search of an automobile incident to arrest exception. However, in Gant J. Scalia voted to not allow the search, perhaps because there was no reason to believe that any evidence related to the arrestee’s offense was to be found.

Police often use automobile search incident to arrest to bump up minor traffic violations to more prestigious drug arrests. Police can pull over any vehicle for any number of minor traffic violations that are all but impossible to avoid. The police can then place the driver under arrest, but a search of the passenger compartment must be tied to evidence related to the offense. The police can still search the vehicle during the “inventory” process, after the vehicle has been impounded.

H/T: John Wesley Hall, Myron Moskovitz, Michael C. Gizzi and R. Craig Curtis, David L. Berland.

12 thoughts on “<i>Arizona v. Gant</i> (2009)”

  1. Did anyone else realize the they left out the r in grant in the 4th paragraph?

  2. at the next traffic stop they’ll just go back to the old standby, swear it was in plain sight.

  3. But Bob…That may well be true if they did not just have the vehicle towed and impounded…Not all Law Enforcement Agency’s have an impound yard.. I think that Jack Booted Thugs like this should be held in check….and this is a correct decision…..

    Another thought is I wonder if the court might have been a little suspicious of the officers actions…It is not uncommon or unlikely that the “Evidence” could have been planted…

  4. One would think that the inventory exception would make discovery of the evidence an inevitability.

  5. Sounds as if they were reaffirming in Gant the original rulings: “search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made”(original drug arrest in Thorton as opposed to suspended license arrest in Gant) … or in control of the arrested party (jacket in Belton as opposed to no personal property in Gant).

    What I don’t understand is why this second case had to be brought at all as both Thorton and Belton seem very clear and Gants arrest for suspended license fits neither.

    Since all of this started with a trial judge … now what happens?

  6. What the blogger did not mention is that J. Ginsburg voted with J. Scalia in both cases. Why not? I suspect because that fact does not fit the narrative. As to why the two voted the way they did in Thorton,

    “In this case, as in Belton, petitioner was lawfully arrested for a drug offense. It was reasonable for Officer Nichols to believe that further contraband or similar evidence relevant to the crime for which he had been arrested might be found in the vehicle from which he had just alighted and which was still within his vicinity at the time of arrest. I would affirm the decision below on that ground.”

    And in Gant, in addition to joining J. Stevens’s opinion, J. Scalia wrote a concurrence stating:

    “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. Because respondent was arrested for driving without a license (a crime for which no evidence could be expected to be found in the vehicle), I would hold in the present case that the search was unlawful.”

    I think this should answer the blogger’s question about why J. Scalia voted the way he did in the two cases.

  7. It is on life support….maybe it will be given new life…Thanks for the info nal…

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