Vol. 24 No. 10- Supreme Court Limits Searches Of Vehicles Pursuant To Arrest

April 22, 2009

In a decision which changes the way “things have been” for almost thirty (30) years, the United States Supreme Court ruled, on April 21, 2009, that “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.”  (Emphasis added.)

In a 5 – 4 decision, in the case of Arizona v. Gant, the Supreme Court concluded that “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.”

What made this decision somewhat unique is the makeup of the majority of the Court.  Joining with three relatively liberal members of the Court were two of the most conservative justices, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Basis of the Decision

In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, and any containers therein, contemporaneous with a recent occupant’s lawful arrest.  The justification for allowing such a search was either (1) the interest of officer safety or (2) the interest in preserving evidence which might be in the vehicle.  In the case of Gant, however, neither of those factors was present.

Officers knew that there was an outstanding warrant for Gant for driving on a suspended license.  Officers were at his home on a tip that it was being used to sell drugs.  While there, they saw Gant pull into his driveway and arrested him on the warrant.  After handcuffing him, he was placed in the back of a patrol car.  The officers then proceeded to search his vehicle and discovered a gun and a bag of cocaine.

Gant was charged with possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.  He moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the warrantless search of his car violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment.  He argued that the exception in theBelton case did not apply since he posed no threat to the officers after he was handcuffed and placed in the police car.  Furthermore, since he had been arrested only for a traffic offense, driving on a suspended license, there was no evidence of the “crime” to be found in the vehicle.  When asked, at the suppression hearing, why the search was conducted, the officer responded:  “Because the
law says we can do it.”

When Searches Can Be Conducted

The Supreme Court ruled that a search would be justified “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”  Also, the Court said, police can “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.”

The Court noted that “neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search in this case.”  Continuing, the Court said, “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.”

It was argued by Arizona that law enforcement needed the ability to conduct such searches, incidental to a lawful arrest, in order to efficiently carry out their duties.   The Court rejected that argument and stated that “the mere fact that law enforcement may be made more efficient can never by itself justify disregard of the Fourth Amendment.”


Times change and this case changes what has been in practice for the past 28 years.  But all of us, including law enforcement, must adapt to those changes and find new ways to accomplish our tasks.  The fact that officers can no longer conduct these types of searches does not mean there are no other ways to carry out their job; the Court itself identifies what can be done.

The Court points out that if there is no justification to conduct a search based on officer safety or preservation of evidence, a warrant must be obtained before the vehicle can be searched.  “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.”  It is imperative that officers become aware of this decision since it significantly changes what has been standard operating procedure for three decades.  Failure to train officers on this change will, without a doubt, create litigation and liability for both the agency and, in all likelihood, the officers as well.  This is now settled law and must be followed.

As always, we urge that you receive advice and guidance from your agency’s legal counsel – especially on a matter of such significance as this.  If you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.