-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.