Thursday, August 6, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Puts Brakes on Auto Searches Following Arrest

This spring in the case of Arizona v. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back a bright-line automobile search rule in criminal cases established over a quarter century ago in N.Y. v. Belton that permitted a full-blown search of the interior of an automobile recently occupied by the subject of an arrest. Forty years ago, in Chimel v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, once a person was placed under lawful arrest, the police could lawfully search the person and the area of "immediate control" surrounding the person without a warrant. In Belton, the Court held that when a person was arrested after being in an automobile, the entire interior of the automobile was within the arrestee's "immediate control" and thus could be searched without a warrant.

All that was changed in the Gant case decided before the Court's summer recess. In Gant, the police were waiting with an arrest warrant for driving with a suspended driver's license at the defendant's home when they saw him drive into his driveway, park, and get out of his car. Once out of the car with the door shut, the police arrested Gant and then proceeded to search the interior of the car per Belton and found cocaine and a gun. Gant was then prosecuted on illegal drug and firearms charges. The evidence was suppressed by the Arizona Supreme Court, which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, held 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."

It is unclear if this rationale will be extended to other arrest situations that do not involve an automobile--homes, purses, suitcases, etc. What is clear is that police no longer have carte blanche to search the interior of a car if they arrest an occupant thereof.

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