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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Arizona v. Gant: Restricting searches of recently occupied vehicles

Police officers went to a house suspected of being used for narcotics activity. One officer knocked on the door, and Rodney Gant answered the officer’s knock on the door. The officers asked to speak with the homeowner, but Gant told them that the owner was not at home and would not return until later that day. Gant gave the officers information about his identity. The officers left and ran a records check on Gant and discovered that his license was suspended and that he had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. The officers returned to the house that evening, finding two individuals outside the house. After investigation, they were arrested. While the officers were handcuffing the individuals and placing them in patrol cars, Gant drove up in his car and parked in the driveway. One officer summoned Gant as he got out of his car, and Gant walked approximately 8-12 feet toward the officer. The officer told Gant that he was under arrest for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed him, and placed him in a patrol car. Officers then searched the passenger compartment of Gant’s car and found a plastic baggie containing cocaine. Gant was charged with one count of possession of a narcotic drug for sale and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia. The Arizona trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, and he was convicted of drug offenses. The state Supreme Court reversed, distinguishing New York v. Belton, 453 U. S. 454–which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of a recent occupant's lawful arrest–on the ground that it concerned the scope of a search incident to arrest but did not answer the question whether officers may conduct such a search once the scene has been secured. Because Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 , requires that a search incident to arrest be justified by either (a) the interest in officer safety or (b) the interest in preserving evidence, and the circumstances of Gant’s arrest implicated neither of those interests, the state Supreme Court found the search unreasonable. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, holding that 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. Warrantless searches "are per se unreasonable," "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347 . The exception for a search incident to a lawful arrest applies only to "the area from within which [an arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." Chimel, 395 U. S., at 763. The Court rejected a broad reading of Belton that would permit a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest even if there were no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel’s exception authorize a vehicle search only when there is a reasonable possibility of such access. Although it does not follow from Chimel, circumstances unique to the automobile context also justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is "reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Neither Chimel’s reaching-distance rule nor Thornton’s allowance for evidentiary searches authorized the search in this case. In contrast to Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, five officers handcuffed and secured Gant and the two other suspects in separate patrol cars before the search began. Gant clearly could not have accessed his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking. Belton and Thornton were both arrested for drug offenses, but Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license–an offense for which police could not reasonably expect to find evidence in Gant’s car. The search in this case was therefore unreasonable. In the end the Court was unpersuaded by the State’s argument that an expansive reading of Belton correctly balances law enforcement interests with an arrestee’s limited privacy interest in his vehicle. The Court found that the state seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake, and it exaggerates both the clarity provided by a broad reading of Belton and its importance to law enforcement interests. A narrow reading of Belton and Thornton, together with the Court’s other Fourth Amendment decisions, e.g., Michigan v. Long, 463 U. S. 103 , and United States v. Ross, 456 U. S. 798, permit an officer to search a vehicle when safety or evidentiary concerns demand. Finally the court held that stare decisis does not require adherence to a broad reading of Belton, because 28 years of experience has proved that the assumption underpinning that case is unfounded, authorizing "myriad unconstitutional searches."