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Officer Safety Impacted: U.S. Supreme Court Places Restrictions on Car Searches

Public Agency Training Council

Law enforcement officers throughout the United States recognize their ability to search vehicles incident to the arrest of an occupant. The foundation purpose of such searches is to prevent the subject from reaching into the vehicle for a weapon or reaching into the vehicle to destroy evidence. These searches have, for many years, been limited to the passenger compartment of the vehicle.

As a tactical matter, an officer who arrests the occupant of a vehicle generally handcuffs the individual and secures them in the rear of their law enforcement vehicle, prior to conducting the search. This is of particular importance to officer safety when an officer is by themselves when making the arrest. This tactic no longer meets constitutional standards as a search incident to arrest unless there is reason to believe the car contains evidence of the crime for which the arrest has occurred. Read on.

In Arizona v. Gant,i the United States Supreme Court considered an appeal by the prosecution from the State of Arizona regarding whether or not law enforcement can search a vehicle incident to the arrest of a subject after the subject has been secured in handcuffs and secured in the back of a police vehicle.

The Arizona Supreme Court outlined the facts regarding the search of Gant’s vehicle as follows:

On August 25, 1999, two uniformed Tucson police officers went to a house after receiving a tip of narcotics activity there. When Defendant Rodney Gant answered the door, the officers asked to speak with the owner of the residence. Gant informed the officers that the owner was not home, but would return later that afternoon. After leaving the residence, the officers ran a records check and discovered that Gant had a suspended driver’s license and an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license.

The officers returned to the house later that evening. While they were there, Gant drove up and parked his car in the driveway. As he got out of his car, an officer summoned him. Gant walked eight to twelve feet toward the officer, who immediately arrested and handcuffed him. Within minutes, Gant had been locked in the back of a patrol car, where he remained under the supervision of an officer. At least four officers were at the residence by this time and the scene was secure. Two other arrestees had already been handcuffed and locked in the back of separate patrol cars and there were no other people around.

After Gant had been locked in the patrol car, two officers searched the passenger compartment of his car and found a weapon and a plastic baggie containing cocaine. Gant was charged with one count of possession of a narcotic drug for sale and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia for the baggie that held the drug.ii

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The Supreme Court of Arizona asserted the issue in the case:

This case requires us to determine whether the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement permits the warrantless search of an arrestee’s car when the scene is secure and the arrestee is handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car, and under the supervision of a police officer. We hold that in such circumstances, a warrantless search is not justified. In agreeing to an appeal in the case, the United States Supreme Court limited the question in the case to the following:

“Does the Fourth Amendment require law enforcement officers to demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest in order to justify a warrantless vehicular search incident to arrest conducted after the vehicle’s recent occupants have been arrested an secure?”

Key Question: Can officer conduct a search of a vehicle incident to arrest after an arrestee has been secured in handcuffs and placed in a locked police vehicle?

The Decision

In analyzing the facts in Gant the United States Supreme Court asserted: “In Chimel,iii we held that a search incident to arrest may only include ‘the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control’—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence. That limitation, which continues to define the boundaries of the exception, ensures that the scope of a search incident to arrest is commensurate with its purposes of protecting arresting officers and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy.”

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