By: LINDSEY O'NEILL, ESQ.
So, when can the police search your car? First of all, if you consent to the search, they can search it. Also, if they have a warrant to search your car, they can search it. But there are exceptions to the general rule requiring a warrant - today we're talking about the “search incident to arrest” exception. We're talking about it here because the U.S. Supreme Court just handed down a ruling this week that severely limits law enforcement's ability to search your car if you're arrested.
The rule used to be that if you are arrested when you’re in your car (or a passenger in a car), the police could search the interior of the vehicle (and containers within the car without needing a search warrant. The reason the law allowed these vehicle searches was: (1) to protect the safety of arresting offers - for instance in case you have a gun or other weapon in the car you could reach and harm the office with it; and (2) to preserve incriminating evidence in the car which might otherwise be destroyed. For nearly 30 years, police have relied on this rule to search vehicles upon arrest.
Now, the law is different. The Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Arizona v. Gant this week, which dramatically limits police searches of vehicles incident to an arrest. A little background…. Rodney Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed, and placed into the back of a locked patrol car. After Gant was secured, the police searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket pocket on the back seat. Of course, Gant was charged with drug possession, but fought it arguing that the police shouldn’t have been allowed to search his car. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
It was a tough decision for the Supreme Court Justices and they were almost split down the middle (a 5-to-4 decision), but the majority decided the old rule allowing a search of an arrestee's car in this situation was wrong. They ruled the police should only be allowed to search a car incident to an occupant’s arrest if, at the time of the search: (1) the arrestee can reach for a weapon in the car or try to destroy evidence in the car; or (2) when it is reasonable to believe that the vehicle contains evidence related to the offense for which the person was arrested. Since Gant was already handcuffed and in the back of the patrol car, he obvioulsy couldn't reach for a weapon located inside the car that he could use to harm the officer... or reach for evidence of drugs in the car he could destroy. And since Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, there was obviously no evidence of the crime for which he was arrested (a traffic violation) that could be in the car. So, the Supreme Court ruled that the search was illegal.
So what will come of this ruling? There is concern on both sides.
On one hand, law enforcement is concerned that police officers’ safety is at risk by the ruling - the argument that police officers will refrain from handcuffing suspects and placing them in patrol car, rather leaving suspects unsecured in/around the car when they conduct the search. Surely, at least some of the arrestees will have weapons in the car that could be used to harm the arresting officers.
On the other hand, civil liberties groups have been concerned about “front” arrests for minor traffic violations – when the police suspect someone of drug crimes, but don't have (or can't get) a search warrant to look for the drugs... so end up arresting them for minor traffic violations so they can search the car without a warrant.
What do you think? Is this the right ruling? If you're curious... read the Supreme Court opinion in Arizona v. Gant here.
Remember, if you’re involved in a situation impacting your constitutional rights with regard to search and seizure, contact a criminal defense attorney in your area today.
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