Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When are warrantless car searches ok?

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court answered this question in Arizona v. Gant.

The case involved Rodney Gant, a man arrested in Arizona for driving with a suspended license. After police placed him in the patrol car, they searched his vehicle and found cocaine. Gant's counsel argued that this was an improper search barred by the Fourth Amendment.

Since New York v. Belton was decided in 1981, courts had been relying on this precedential language: “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment.” The problem - how "contemporaneous" does it have to be? Up until Tuesday, this limited authority to perform a warrantless search had arguably been expanded to allow "routine" car searches after suspects (for any crime involving a vehicle) had already been placed in custody.

In Tuesday's 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the only way police can conduct a warrantless search of a car as part of an arrest is if the person being arrested is (1) within reach of the car or (2) the police officers have reason to believe that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” The "within reach" test is to protect the officers and the second part is to prevent tampering with evidence.

The Court said that there was no way Gant could have reached his car to tamper with evidence nor did he pose any safety threats to the officers - he had been searched unconstitutionally.

~ Andréa

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