U.S. Supreme Court Modifies Search-Incident-to-Arrest Exception to Warrant Requirement

          The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that searches conducted by the police without first obtaining a search warrant are unlawful unless those searches fall within certain recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement contained in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  One of those exceptions permits police officers to conduct warrantless searches during or immediately after a lawful arrest.  (This is commonly referred to as the "search-incident-to-arrest" exception.)

 

          In the 1981 case of New York v. Belton, the U.S. Supreme Court analyzed the search-incident-to-arrest exception in the context of a police search of a car.  The High Court concluded that when a police officer lawfully arrests the occupant of a vehicle, he may--right then and there--search the passenger compartment of the vehicle as well as any containers found in the passenger compartment.  The reasons why she may do so are twofold:

 

         1.  To remove any weapons contained in the car that the arrested person might try to obtain in order to hurt the officer with; and

 

          2.  To prevent the arrested person from concealing or destroying evidence (such as drugs) contained in the car.

 

          But what if the arrested person has been handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a patrol car?  He certainly cannot get back into his car and retrieve a gun or drugs.  In that case, why should the police be allowed to search the passenger compartment of his car and any containers found therein?  This question has been raised many times since Belton was decided almost thirty years ago, but courts have, by and large, routinely allowed the police to conduct such searches notwithstanding this very plausible argument.

 

          However, all that changed in the very recent case of Arizona v. Gant.  In that particular case, Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended driver's license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car.  The police then searched his car and found some cocaine in the pocket of a jacket located on the backseat.

 

          On appeal, Gant argued that the Belton case did not authorize the search of his car because:

 

          1.  He posed no threat to the officers after he was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a locked patrol car; and

 

          2.  He was arrested for a traffic crime for which no evidence could be found in his vehicle.

 

          The United States Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Gant holding that the police are authorized to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrested person is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. 

 

          However, the Court also concluded that the police are authorized to conduct such a search when it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime for which the occupant has been arrested might be found in the vehicle.  For example, if a recent occupant of a car is arrested for possessing cocaine found in one of his pants' pockets, it would probably be reasonable for the police to believe that additional narcotics or narcotics-related equipment might also be found in his car.  In that case, the police would probably be justified in searching the passenger compartment and any containers located inside of that compartment.

 

          It will be interesting to see how the ruling in Gant affects the day-to-day decisions of police officers now that they no longer have the authority to automatically search someone's car when they arrest a recent occupant.  Will some officers intentionally not handcuff such persons immediately upon arrest so that the officers can later argue (in court) that they were authorized to search the person's car in order to prevent that individual from grabbing a gun or destroying drugs?  Are the police authorized to search a recent occupant's car if he is arrested for, say, being an illegal alien?  Only time and the inevitable litigation that follows important Supreme Court opinions such as Gant will tell.

 

 

      If you have been arrested for a crime in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach, St. Lucie County, Martin County, Palm Beach County, Broward County, or Miami-Dade County, and you think your rights were violated, call me, attorney Ron Chapman, at 561-832-4348 to discuss your case and see how I might be able to help you.

 

 

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