Context:

 

Arizona v. Gant

556 US 332 (2009)

(The SILA While in Police Car Case)


Facts:

On August 25, 1999, acting on an anonymous tip that the residence at 2524 North Walnut Avenue was being used to sell drugs, Tucson police officers Griffith and Reed knocked on the front door and asked to speak to the owner. Gant answered the door and, after identifying himself, stated that he expected the owner to return later. The officers left the residence and conducted a recordscheck, which revealed that Gant's driver's license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.

When the officers returned to the house that evening, they found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of it. After a third officer arrived, they arrested the man for providing a false name and the woman for possessing drug paraphernalia. Both arrestees were handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars when Gant arrived. The officers recognized his car as it entered the driveway, and Officer Griffith confirmed that Gant was the driver by shining a flashlight into the car as it drove by him. Gant parked at the end of the driveway, got out of his car, and shut the door. Griffith, who was about 30 feet away, called to Gant, and they approached each other, meeting 10-to-12 feet from Gant's car. Griffith immediately arrested Gant and handcuffed him.

Because the other arrestees were secured in the only patrol cars at the scene, Griffith called for backup. When two more officers arrived, they locked Gant in the backseat of their vehicle. After Gant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, two officers searched his car: One of them found a gun, and the other discovered a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.                     

Arizonav. Gant 556 US 332 (2009)

Arizonav. Gant 556 US 332 (2009)

Question:

Whether a prior case law authorizes a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant's arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle.

Reasoning:

“Searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment --subjectonly to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions."Among the exceptions to the warrant requirement is a search incident to a lawful arrest. The exception derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations. 

If there is no possibility that an arrestee could reach into the area that law enforcement officers seek to search, both justifications for the search-incident-to-arrest exception are absent and the rule does not apply.

Circumstances unique to the vehicle context 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."

Neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search in this case. Unlike in Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, the five officers in this caseoutnumbered the three arrestees, all of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the officers searched Gant's car. Under those circumstances, Gant clearly was not within reaching distanceof his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking in this case. Whereas Beltonand Thornton were arrested for drug offenses, Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license--an offense for which police could not expect to find evidence in the passenger compartment of Gant's car. 

The State seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake. Although we have recognized that a motorist's privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in his home, the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection. 

Under our view, Beltonand Thornton permit an officer to conduct a vehicle search when an arrestee is within reaching distanceof the vehicle or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Other established exceptions to the warrant requirement authorize a vehicle search under additional circumstances when safety or evidentiary concerns demand. 

These exceptions together ensure that officers may search a vehicle when genuine safety or evidentiary concerns encountered during the arrest of a vehicle's recent occupant justify a search. Construing Beltonbroadly to allow vehicle searches incident to anyarrest would serve no purpose except to provide a police entitlement, and it is anathema to the Fourth Amendment to permit a warrantless search on that basis.

Articles inside the passenger compartment are rarely "within 'the area into which an arrestee might reach."                      

Justice Stevens decides Arizona v. Grant

Holding:

"The Chimelrationale authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distanceof the passenger compartment at the time of the search. We also conclude that circumstances unique to the vehicle context 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."

Because police could not reasonably have believed either that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense for which he was arrested might have been found therein, the search in this casewas unreasonable.

Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distanceof the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant  requirementapplies.


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Key Takeaway

Unless the search of the automobile was part of a Search Incident to Lawful Arrest (SILA), the arrested person was within "one lunge" of the vehicle at the time of the search, and it's reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest, officers cannot search vehicles whenever they arrest people in vehicles.


Court Syllabus:

Respondent Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car before officers searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket pocket. The Arizona trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, and he was convicted of drug offenses. Reversing, the State Supreme Court distinguished New York v. Belton--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. Californiarequires that a search incident to arrest be justified by either the interest in officer safety or 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.

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.

(a) Warrantless searches "are per se unreasonable," "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." 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." This Court applied that exception to the automobile context in Belton, the holding of which rested in large part on the assumption that articles inside a vehicle's passenger compartment are "generally . . . within 'the area into which an arrestee might reach.'" 

(b) This Court rejects 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." 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.

(c) This Court is unpersuaded by the State's argument that its expansive reading of Belton correctly balances law enforcement interests with an arrestee's limited privacy interest in his vehicle. 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 this Court's other Fourth Amendment decisions, permit an officer to search a vehicle when safety or evidentiary concerns demand.

(d) Stare decisis does not require adherence to a broad reading of Belton. The experience of the 28 years since Belton has shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded, and blind adherence to its faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches.


How the Justices Voted

Majority: Stevens, joined by Scalia, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg

Concurrence: Scalia

Dissent: Breyer

Dissent: Alito, joined by Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer