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Vehicle Searches Incident to Lawful Arrests: Police Can or Can't After Gant?
Thursday, November 19, 2009

April 21, 2009 likely changed law enforcement and criminal prosecution forever.  On that day, the United States Supreme Court announced its latest decision regarding warrantless searches of vehicles incident to lawful arrests in Arizona v. Gant.[1]

With Gant, the Court severely limited a prior case holding that has served as authority for routine vehicle searches in connection with arrests for twenty-eight years.  The Gant decision forces state and local governments to retrain law enforcement officers everywhere on searching vehicles in connection with arrests.

The Law Prior to Gant

The starting point for any search is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees protection from "unreasonable searches and seizures."[2]  The basic rule is that a warrantless search is per se unreasonable.  In 1967, the United States Supreme Court recognized, "Searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions."[3]

One of those exceptions is a search incident to a lawful arrest.[4]  But a search incident to a lawful arrest also has its limitations.  In Chimel v. California, the United States Supreme Court defined the boundaries of such a search to include "the arrestee's person and the area within his immediate control."[5]  The rule laid out in Chimel was often referred to as the "reaching-distance" rule.[6]

New York v. Belton Served as Authority to Search an Arrestee's Vehicle

The Supreme Court decided to hear the case known as New York v. Belton, twelve years after the "reaching-distance rule" was established, because lower courts had found no workable definition of the boundary defined in Chimel.[7]

The facts in Belton were significant.  Belton involved only one police officer, arresting four occupants of a vehicle.[8]  After the arrestees' vehicle passed the officer's cruiser, speeding, the officer stopped them.[9]  He smelled burnt marijuana and saw, in plain view, an envelope marked "Supergold."[10]  The officer ordered the occupants out of the vehicle, patted them down and, without handcuffing the arrestees, conducted a search of the vehicle.[11]

The Supreme Court found that the search was not unreasonable.  It stated, "We hold that, when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile."[12]

The Supreme Court's holding in Belton was generally interpreted to entitle law enforcement officers to search a vehicle, without a warrant, in connection with any lawful arrest.[13]  To be sure, the officer in Gant testified that he searched Gant's vehicle, "Because the law says we can do it."[14]

In Gant, the Supreme Court characterized the Belton holding narrower than its broad application.[15]  It recognized that lower courts interpreted the Belton holding to entitle law enforcement officers to search a vehicle incident to every arrest.[16]  Indeed, some courts upheld searches under Belton even after the handcuffed arrestee had already left the scene.[17]  The Court articulated that a broad reading was not its intention.  It cautioned, "To read Belton as authorizing a vehicle search incident to every recent occupant's arrest would thus untether the rule from the justifications underlying the Chimel exception."[18]

In an apparent attempt to bring clarity to the confusion created by Belton, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the Gant case.  Its limited purpose was to determine whether a threat to officer's safety or preservation of evidence were necessary to justify a vehicle search incident to arrest.[19]  The Court ultimately concluded that one of those justifications is necessary.[20]

The Gant Facts

Acting on an anonymous tip, police officers knocked on the front door of a suspected drug dealer's residence.[21]  Gant answered the door and said the home's owner would return later.[22]  After they left the scene, the officers conducted a records search that revealed an outstanding warrant for Gant, arising from his driving with a suspended license.[23]

The officers returned to the house later that evening and found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked out front.[24]  The man was arrested for providing false identification and the woman for possession of drug paraphernalia.[25]  Both were handcuffed and placed in separate patrol cars.[26]

Thereafter, Gant arrived at the residence, parked his car at the end of the driveway and got out.[27]  One of the officers called to Gant and the two met ten or twelve feet from Gant's car.[28]  The three officers called for backup because the two patrol cars on the scene contained the other two arrestees.[29]

Two more officers arrived and Gant was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car.[30]  After he was secured in a patrol car, the officers searched Gant's vehicle, finding a gun and a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.[31]  Gant was charged with two drug-related offenses, possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.[32]

Gant argued that the search was unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  The Arizona Supreme Court agreed.[33]

The Court's Holding in Gant and What it Means

The United States Supreme Court agreed with Gant and the Arizona Supreme Court.  The ultimate holding in Gant is that a search of an arrestee's vehicle may be conducted, absent a warrant, only where it is justified by two concerns - safety and evidence.  Specifically, the Court stated, ". . . the Chimel rationale authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search."[34]  It went on to find that, because neither safety or evidentiary concerns were present on the facts at issue, the search unreasonable and unwarranted.  Id.  "Neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search in this case."  Id.

The following chart summarizes when a vehicle search is appropriate according to the Supreme Court's decision in Gant.



(1) Arrestee unsecured; and

(2) Arrestee is within reaching distance of passenger compartment at time of search  



(1) Arrestee may destroy evidence; or 

(2) Reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest may be found. 

Reactions to Gant


Generally, reactions to the Gant decision have not been positive among law enforcement officers and prosecutors have been disappointed.[35]  Devallis Rutledge, special counsel to the Los Angeles County District attorney, stated, "It substantially overrules a 28-year-old precedent that we've all relied on."[36]  "Police officers have been 'doing the safe thing' by searching vehicles after securing suspects to make sure they aren't a safety threat.  'That's been the way they've been taught and the way they've been trained,' Rutledge said.  'Now, we will lose the evidence they obtained' in some cases."[37]  Rutledge also believes the new rules make it harder to catch criminals.[38]

On the other side of the law, defense attorneys and others are pleased, claiming the "wrongs" created by Belton have finally been righted.  Students in Northwestern University School of Law's Supreme Court Clinic who helped prepare respondent's counsel for oral argument were thrilled with the Gant decision.[39]  Similarly, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford Law School professor and author of an amicus brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, praised the decision as "a return to reality."[40]

Some think the Gant decision is huge.  "'This case is as big a legal change as we have seen in some time!' the Columbus city attorney's office told officers in an 'emergency legal update.'"[41]  Still others have opined that Gant will not have dramatic effects.[42]  The Police Chief for Fort Wayne, Indiana stated, "I really don't see any major difficulties. * * * I think it's going to be an educational issue.  * * * It's just like when Miranda came down.  The officers adjusted."[43]  Tom Hammarstrom, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, agreed that training for law officers would be adjusted to conform to the high court's ruling.[44]

Gant's Impact

Despite mixed reactions to the Gant decision, it will undoubtedly impact law enforcement practices and the way criminal cases are prosecuted and defended.  Presumably, some of the impact of Gant will be lessened by appaarent continued viability of inventory searches that police conduct  pursuant to South Dakota v. Opperma[45] after impounding vehicles.  Such inventories will still allow officers to discover evidence not relevant to the crime of arrest.  However, when the arrestee's vehicle is not impounded, as in Gant where the vehicle was parked at a private residence, potential evidence of other crimes will go undiscovered, protected by the arrestee's privacy rights.

No one can deny that the Gant decision will serve an important part of American history, Constitutional law, and Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

[1] Arizona v. Gant, 162 P.3d 640,  cert. granted, 128 S. Ct. 1443 (2008), No. 07-542, October Term, 2008 (April 21, 2009), available via Westlaw at 2009 WL 1045962.

[2] U.S. Const. amend. IX.

[3] Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967).

[4] Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 398 (1914). 

[5] Chimel v. California, 395 U.S.752, 763 (1969).

[6] Arizona v. Gant, p. 1, ¶ 2.

[7] New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 458-460 (1981).

[8] Id. at 455. 

[9] Id

[10] Id. at 455-456. 

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 460.

[13] Arizona v. Gant, supra, ¶¶ 19, 20 (recognizing, "lower court decisions seem now to treat the ability to search a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent occupant as police entitlement rather than an exception . . . ") 

[14] Id, p. 3, ¶ 2.

[15] Id., p. 7, ¶ 2.   

[16] Id., p. 9, ¶1. 

[17] See Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615, 628 (2004). 

[18] Id. at p. 9, ¶ 2.

[19] Arizona v. Gant, 128 S. Ct. 1443 (2008).

[20] Arizona v. Gant, 162 P.3d 640,  cert. granted, 128 S. Ct. 1443 (2008), No. 07-542, October Term, 2008 (April 21, 2009), available via Westlaw at 2009 WL 1045962.

[21] Id. at p. 2, ¶ 2. 

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id., p. 2, ¶ 3. 

[25] Id

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id

[29] Id

[30] Id. at p. 3, ¶ 1.  

[31] Id

[32] Id. at p. 3, ¶ 2.

[33] Id., p. 3, ¶ 3.

[34] Id. at p. 10, ¶ 1. 

[35] Mark Sherman, Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Vehicle Searches, Associated Press, April 21, 2009. 

[36] Id

[37] Id

[38] Id

[39] Supreme Court Ruling on Car Search Makes Students' Day, April 22, 2009, at http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2009/04/supremecourt.html. 

[40] Nora Tooher, U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Police Search Powers, Lawyers USA, April 21, 2009.

[41] Randy Ludlow, Police Face Limits on Vehicle Searches, The Columbus Dispatch, April 24, 2009. 

[42] Aaron Organ, Fort Wayne Police Chief OK with Warrantless Search Limitation, The New-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana), April 22, 2009.

[43] Id.

[44] Mark Sherman, Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Vehicle Searches, Associated Press, April 21, 2009.

[45] South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976)

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