PoliceOne Analysis: Arizona v. Gant
The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a ruling that modifies the search incident to arrest doctrine, rejecting a broad reading of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). In Arizona v. Gant, — U.S. —, 2009 WL 1045962, the Court overturned the search incident to arrest of Rodney Gant’s car after Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and secured in the back of a patrol car. With several officers at the scene, officers found cocaine in Gant’s car during the search incident to the driver license arrest.
The Court held that a search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle following an arrest is allowed “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 holding of Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 (1969), continues to be good law, insofar as the search incident to arrest can be justified by the suspect’s ability to lunge to an area and destroy evidence or reach a weapon. However, once the suspect is handcuffed and moved away from the vehicle, the suspect’s ability to reach evidence or a weapon is eliminated, or at least significantly reduced. One of the practical dangers of the decision in Arizona v. Gant this week is that some officers may conclude that there is a practical balancing act, a tactical trade-off. Leave the suspect unsecured, un-handcuffed, and near the car, and there remains the possibility that that suspect would lunge toward a weapon and thus, the legal justification for the search remains. The legal justification may come at the cost of a significant risk to the officers’ safety.
Five years ago, in Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615 (2004), the Court recognized that a search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent occupant may be also justified “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” The Gant decision also leaves this holding intact. Because Gant and the other two suspects were in custody, handcuffed, and secured in separate police cars, the Court refused to apply the Chimel lunge or reaching justification to the case. And because Gant was arrested for a driver license violation, the Thornton evidentiary search holding would not apply. It was not reasonable to believe that the vehicle held evidence of Gant’s suspended driver license status.
The Gant decision was released Tuesday as I was speaking to a group of court staff, attorneys, and law enforcement officers. One officer showed me a bulletin from his agency that suggested that the search incident to arrest doctrine was no longer valid. Several officers had news stories suggesting that there could no longer be a search incident to arrest of a vehicle.
While troubling for officers, the Gant holding is not nearly so broad. Gant stands for the proposition that once the arrestee is secured, a search incident to arrest of the involved vehicle is lawful only when there is reason to believe that the vehicle holds evidence of the underlying crime on which the arrest is based. Gant does not foreclose other search doctrines that may apply to particular cases. Fourth Amendment warrant clause exceptions of consent, probation/parole search, exigent circumstances, vehicle “frisk” for weapons upon appropriate reasonable suspicion, inventory and community caretaking, continue to potentially apply.
I remember being a young cop and being pleasantly surprised by the Belton decision in 1982. Now, 27 years later, I am surprised by the result in Gant. The thin majority (5-4) was made possible only by Justice Scalia joining the majority opinion, although he wrote a separate opinion highlighting his comments in Thornton. During oral arguments in Arizona v. Gant, held in the fall of 2008, Chief Justice Roberts asked questions that acknowledged that Gant’s arguments are nearly identical to the arguments raised in the Belton case 27 years ago.
Justice Scalia quipped that 27 years is not very long. He asked, “What would have happened if police stopped Thomas Jefferson's carriage to arrest him?” Justice Scalia, known for his preference for bright-line rules that give effective guidance, also asked, “I mean, if the police arrest Mother Teresa, they are still entitled to frisk her, right, even though there’s little likelihood that she has a Gatt (gun)?” A past issue of Xiphos suggested that Justice Scalia’s questioning signaled his desire to curtail or overturn Belton. The Belton decision may have made an officer’s job a little easier, and the Gant decision may well make the job harder, but at the end of the day, cops will continue to uphold, defend and honor the Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.
The full text of the decision may be found here.
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