Chapter 7 Update 7.15
Searches and Seizures: Places, Persons and Vehicles
Arizona v. Gant
Significance of the Case: Police may search the interior of a validly stopped motor vehicle as incident to an arrest of a driver or occupant only if the arrestee is in close proximity to the vehicle and could gain access to a weapon or destroy evidence or when the arrestee has been secured if there is reason to believe that evidence relating to the reason for the arrest will be discovered within the vehicle. This decision has the effect of restricting the area that may be searched incident to arrest in some cases, but does not restrict the use of vehicle inventory, consent, exigent circumstances, and probation or parole exception searches. Also, a frisk of a vehicle's interior for weapons in a situation where there is reasonable basis to suspect the presence of a weapon remains permissible.
Arizona v. Gant
Supreme Court of the United States
___ U.S. ___, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 3120 (2009).
Police officers had a prior encounter with Gant at a residence and used a computer to check on his records. The computer revealed that there was an outstanding warrant on Gant for driving under a suspended driver's license. When police later returned to the residence, and after they had arrested and secured other persons present at the original residence, Gant drove to the scene in his motor vehicle. Police promptly arrested him for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended driver's license, handcuffed, and locked him in the back of a patrol car. Police officers then searched his car and discovered cocaine and drug paraphernalia in the pocket of a jacket observed on the backseat. A trial court denied Gant's motion to suppress the evidence seized from his car and Gant was convicted of possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.
The Supreme Court of Arizona reversed the trial court decision on the theory that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement did not justify the search. The Supreme Court of Arizona distinguished New York v. Belton , 453 U.S. 454 (1981), 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 Belton concerned the scope of a search incident to arrest but did not address the issue of whether officers may conduct a vehicle search once the car has been secured. According to Chimel v. California , 395 U.S. 752 (1969), an arresting officer may search only the person arrested and the area within which that person might gain possession of a weapon or might destroy or hide evidence. The court concluded that police could not reasonably have believed that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search since the five officers outnumbered the three arrestees, all of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the officers searched respondent's car, and that police could not reasonably have believed that evidence of the offense of driving under a suspension for which respondent was arrested might have been found in the car since he was arrested for driving with a suspended license, an offense for which police could not have expected to find evidence in the passenger compartment of his car. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.
May police officers search the interior of a validly stopped motor vehicle as incident to the arrest of a vehicle occupant only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might gain possession of a weapon or be able to destroy evidence or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense for which the occupant was arrested?
Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, joined.
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Consistent with our precedent, our analysis begins, as it should in every case addressing the reasonableness of a warrantless search, with the basic rule that "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." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). 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.
In Chimel, we held that a search incident to arrest may only include "the arrestee's person and the area 'within his immediate control'--construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." That limitation, which continues to define the boundaries of the exception, ensures that the scope of a search incident to arrest is commensurate with its purposes of protecting arresting officers and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy. See Chimel. (noting that searches incident to arrest are reasonable "in order to remove any weapons [the arrestee] might seek to use" and "in order to prevent [the] concealment or destruction" of evidence). 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. E.g., Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364, 367-368, 84 S. Ct. 881, 11 L. Ed. 2d 777 (1964).
In Belton, we considered Chimel's application to the automobile context. A lone police officer in that case stopped a speeding car in which Belton was one of four occupants. While asking for the driver's license and registration, the officer smelled burnt marijuana and observed an envelope on the car floor marked "Supergold"--a name he associated with marijuana. Thus having probable cause to believe the occupants had committed a drug offense, the officer ordered them out of the vehicle, placed them under arrest, and patted them down. Without handcuffing the arrestees, the officer "'split them up into four separate areas of the Thruway . . . so they would not be in physical touching area of each other'" and searched the vehicle, including the pocket of a jacket on the backseat, in which he found cocaine. 453 U.S., at 456, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768.
The New York Court of Appeals found the search unconstitutional, concluding that after the occupants were arrested the vehicle and its contents were "safely within the exclusive custody and control of the police." State v. Belton, 50 N.Y.2d 447, 452, 407 N.E.2d 420, 423, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574 (1980). The State asked this Court to consider whether the exception recognized in Chimel permits an officer to search "a jacket found inside an automobile while the automobile's four occupants, all under arrest, are standing unsecured around the vehicle." Brief in No. 80-328, p i. We granted certiorari because "courts ha[d] found no workable definition of 'the area within the immediate control of the arrestee' when that area arguably includes the interior of an automobile." 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768.
In its brief, the State argued that the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the jacket was under the officer's exclusive control. Focusing on the number of arrestees and their proximity to the vehicle, the State asserted that it was reasonable for the officer to believe the arrestees could have accessed the vehicle and its contents, making the search permissible under Chimel. Brief in No. 80-328, at 7-8. * * * There was no suggestion by the parties or amici that Chimel authorizes a vehicle search incident to arrest when there is no realistic possibility that an arrestee could access his vehicle.
After considering these arguments, we held that when an officer lawfully arrests "the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the automobile" and any containers therein. Belton, 453 U.S., at 460. That holding was based in large part on our assumption "that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within 'the area into which an arrestee might reach.'" Ibid.
The Arizona Supreme Court read our decision in Belton as merely delineating "the proper scope of a search of the interior of an automobile" incident to an arrest, id., at 459. That is, when the passenger compartment is within an arrestee's reaching distance, Belton supplies the generalization that the entire compartment and any containers therein may be reached. On that view of Belton, the state court concluded that the search of Gant's car was unreasonable because Gant clearly could not have accessed his car at the time of the search. It also found that no other exception to the warrant requirement applied in this case.
Gant now urges us to adopt the reading of Belton followed by the Arizona Supreme Court.
Despite the textual and evidentiary support for the Arizona Supreme Court's reading of Belton, our opinion has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. This reading may be attributable to Justice Brennan's dissent in Belton, in which he characterized the Court's holding as resting on the "fiction . . . that the interior of a car is always within the immediate control of an arrestee who has recently been in the car." 453 U.S., at 466. Under the majority's approach, he argued, "the result would presumably be the same even if [the officer] had handcuffed Belton and his companions in the patrol car" before conducting the search. Id., at 468.
[Since the Supreme Court of the United States decided Belton, courts have given varying answers to the question of whether a vehicle must be within the arrestee's reach to permit a search incident to arrest. Indeed, many courts have permitted the search of a vehicle's interior as appropriate and as incident to a lawful arrest. Justice O'Connor noted that such searches seem to be a police entitlement. Courts have upheld vehicle searches incident to an arrest when the arrestee has been handcuffed and has left the scene.]
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Under this broad reading of Belton, a vehicle search would be authorized incident to every arrest of a recent occupant notwithstanding that in most cases the vehicle's passenger compartment will not be within the arrestee's reach at the time of the search. 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--a result clearly incompatible with our statement in Belton that it "in no way alters the fundamental principles established in the Chimel case regarding the basic scope of searches incident to lawful custodial arrests." 453 U.S., at 460, n 3. Accordingly, we reject this reading of Belton and hold that 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.
Although it does not follow from Chimel, 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." Thornton, 541 U.S., at 632, 124 S. Ct. 2127, 158 L. Ed. 2d 905 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). In many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence. [Citations omitted.] But in others, including Belton and Thornton, the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee's vehicle and any containers therein.
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 case outnumbered 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 distance of his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking in this case. Whereas Belton and 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. 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 case was unreasonable.
The State does not seriously disagree with the Arizona Supreme Court's conclusion that Gant could not have accessed his vehicle at the time of the search, but it nevertheless asks us to uphold the search of his vehicle under the broad reading of Belton discussed above. The State argues that Belton searches are reasonable regardless of the possibility of access in a given case because that expansive rule correctly balances law enforcement interests, including the interest in a bright-line rule, with an arrestee's limited privacy interest in his vehicle.
For several reasons, we reject the State's argument. First, 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, see New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106, 112-113, 106 S. Ct. 960, 89 L. Ed. 2d 81 (1986), the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection, see Knowles [v. Iowa] t 117, 119 S. Ct. 484, 142 L. Ed. 2d 492. It is particularly significant that Belton searches authorize police officers to search not just the passenger compartment but every purse, briefcase, or other container within that space. A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals. Indeed, the character of that threat implicates the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment --the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects.
At the same time as it undervalues these privacy concerns, the State exaggerates the clarity that its reading of Belton provides. Courts that have read Belton expansively are at odds regarding how close in time to the arrest and how proximate to the arrestee's vehicle an officer's first contact with the arrestee must be to bring the encounter within Belton's purview and whether a search is reasonable when it commences or continues after the arrestee has been removed from the scene. The rule has thus generated a great deal of uncertainty, particularly for a rule touted as providing a "bright line." See 3 LaFave, § 7.1(c), at 514-524.
Contrary to the State's suggestion, a broad reading of Belton is also unnecessary to protect law enforcement safety and evidentiary interests. Under our view, Belton and Thornton permit an officer to conduct a vehicle search when an arrestee is within reaching distance of 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.
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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 Belton broadly to allow vehicle searches incident to any arrest 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. For these reasons, we are unpersuaded by the State's arguments that a broad reading of Belton would meaningfully further law enforcement interests and justify a substantial intrusion on individuals' privacy.
Our dissenting colleagues argue that the doctrine of stare decisis requires adherence to a broad reading of Belton even though the justifications for searching a vehicle incident to arrest are in most cases absent. The doctrine of stare decisis is of course "essential to the respect accorded to the judgments of the Court and to the stability of the law," but it does not compel us to follow a past decision when its rationale no longer withstands "careful analysis." Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 577 (2003).
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The experience of the 28 years since we decided Belton has shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded. We now know that articles inside the passenger compartment are rarely "within 'the area into which an arrestee might reach,'" 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768, and blind adherence to Belton's faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches. The doctrine of stare decisis does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations.
Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of 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 requirement applies. The Arizona Supreme Court correctly held that this case involved an unreasonable search. Accordingly, the judgment of the State Supreme Court is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
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