When Are the Police Not Allowed to Search Your Car?

          I previously wrote an article on this website entitled "U.S. Supreme Court Modifies Search-Incident-to-Arrest Exception to Warrant Requirement" in which I discussed the case of Arizona v. Gant.  In that article, I stated that:

 

          "[The Gant decision held] 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 Supreme 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."

 

          I concluded the article by stating that "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."

 

          We are now starting to see how Florida courts are, in fact, interpreting the Gant decision.  For example, in the recent case of State v. K.S., the Second District Court of Appeal held that because the circumstances surrounding K.S.'s arrest did not justify a search of his car incident to a lawful arrest, the lower court was correct in granting K.S.'s motion to suppress a gun that was seized by the police during their search of his car.  (The Court used K.S.'s initials rather than his name because K.S. was a minor when this incident occurred.)

 

          The legally-relevant facts as stated in the K.S. opinion are as follows:

 

           "[A]t approximately 8:48 p.m., [a police officer] observed K.S. driving a car without headlights turned on.  K.S. pulled up to a red light at an intersection, waited five to ten seconds, and then ran through the red light. The officer followed K.S. down an alley where K.S. pulled into a driveway behind a house. Once K.S. stopped the car, the officer activated his lights and directed his spotlight towards the vehicle. K.S. opened and closed the driver's side door, reversed the car towards the officer, and then accelerated away from the officer. K.S. drove into a yard at the end of the alley where he stopped the car. The officer pulled up behind the car, directed his spotlight through the car's back window, and exited his vehicle. He observed K.S. reaching towards the dashboard on the passenger side and ordered K.S. to show his hands and step out of the car. K.S. exited the car, and backup officers arrived. The officer handcuffed K.S., arrested him for fleeing and eluding, and found no weapons on him. The officer then took K.S.'s car keys and used the keys to unlock and open the glove box inside K.S.'s car, where he found a semiautomatic firearm."

 

          K.S. then filed a motion to suppress the firearm that was found.  At the hearing on that motion, K.S. testified that he did not consent to a search of his car. Relying on Arizona v. Gant, the trial judge granted K.S.'s motion.

          The prosecutor appealed the trial judge's decision but lost once again.  In concluding that the lower court was correct in granting K.S.'s motion to suppress, the appellate court found the following facts to be particularly important:

 

          1.  In Gant, the Supreme Court held that the search of Gant's automobile was unreasonable where Gant clearly was not within reaching distance of his car because he was handcuffed in a patrol car at the time of the search;

         

          2.  In Gant, the Supreme Court also found that the police could not reasonably have believed they would find evidence relevant to Gant's crime of driving with a suspended license;

 

          3.  Similarly, in K.S.'s case, when the police searched his car, K.S. was separated from his car, placed in handcuffs, and under the supervision of additional backup officers.  (The Court found that K.S.'s quick movements towards the glove compartment did not justify the search based on concerns the officer might have had for his safety.); and

 

          4.  The officer could not reasonably have believed he would find evidence of K.S.'s crime of fleeing and eluding when he searched K.S.'s car.

 

          Before the Gant decision, Florida courts routinely allowed the police to search a car after a recent occupant of that car had been arrested.  That is no longer the case.  Now, before an officer can rely upon the search-incident-to-arrest exception to search someone's car, it must be objectively reasonable for that officer to believe that evidence relevant to the crime for which the recent occupant of the car was arrested might be found in the vehicle.

 

          So, if you are ever arrested and your car searched, it is critically important to determine:

 

          1.  What crime you were arrested for; and

 

          2.  Whether it was objectively reasonable for the officer who searched your car to believe that he might find evidence of that crime when he searched your car.

 

          If you were arrested for a crime such as driving with a suspended license, reckless driving, or fleeing and eluding a police officer, it may well be the case that when the officer searched your car, he did so illegally.

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