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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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  • Profile1_max50

    avictor

    almost 5 years ago

    478 Comments

    Does this mean if a suspect had narcs in their vehicle they could manipulate the situation to assure they are put in the patrol car and then avoid a legal search?

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    jpdsgtusmc

    about 5 years ago

    126 Comments

    Obviously this SUCKS! Another decision made by people who have never policed. I see where alot of agencies will work around it, i.e. two officers at scene allowing suspect to stand next to the car with one leo standing next to suspect while the other leo searches-then the custodial arguement comes in-geez, what next? Pro-active policing will be scrapped in favor of completely re-active!

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    Sprocket69

    about 5 years ago

    92 Comments

    Why is it that criminals have all the rights and LEO's and honest citizens get shafted on a regualr basis. This ruling hurts the LE community and really ties their hands. Basically it gives another acre of freedom to people that want to willingly commit crimes.

    Thanks Supreme Court for slapping the faces of the people that enforce the laws that you are supposed to preside over.

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    adam20ccso

    about 5 years ago

    152 Comments

    This is one of the worst things to happen to us. You would think the Supreme Court Justices had family in the crime business sometimes. It seems courts everywhere find in favor of the criminals more than honest people. Because of the money attorneys get they continue to fight to tie our hands more and more.

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    railroadsystem

    over 5 years ago

    8 Comments

    what if you are liscened to carry and everything ,your driver license is good, insurance was good, car properly registered, you get pulled over for a tail light... officer takes u out of the car by pointing his weapon at you telling u to get out... never consent to search..... back up takes your weapon..... femal back up comfirms smell of SEX,,,, traffic stop last 1 hour 20 min.... after 5 diffrent officers search the car.... no substance found the 6th officers says she found substance in car... the officer that pulled you over writes a citation for possion, but does not tow or take you to jail, no police report, no reference to other officers that searched car,,,, does not turn in citation,,,, judes has yellow or purp's copy of citation,,,, (?) is the on the probation papper work,,,,, tell me how

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    Anonymous

    over 5 years ago

    2 words....... TOW SLIP

  • Pub_fop_star_juo8_max50

    SLAWDAWG1

    over 5 years ago

    294 Comments

    ALSO, AFTER BEING DETAINED FURTHERING THE OFFICERS INVESTIGATION, WHAT MAY HAVE SEEMED LIKE A REGULAR TRAFFIC STOP, TURNS UP DRUGS AND OR ILLEAGAL WEAPONS!! YES HE OR SHE HAS THE RIGHT TO SEARCH

  • Pub_fop_star_juo8_max50

    SLAWDAWG1

    over 5 years ago

    294 Comments

    AT ALL TIMES, THE FOURTH AMENDMENT HAS ALWAYS PLAYED A KEY ROLL IN THE SEARCHES AND SEIZURES OF AN OCCUPANTS VEHICLE, PERSON, PLACE OR PAPERS, AND EFFECTS. DRIVING UNDER SUSPENSION, AND WITH THE LETTER IN THE GLOVE COMPARTMENT OF THE VEHICLE, DUMB AND DUMBER!!!!

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    Anonymous

    over 5 years ago

    Good answers guys. CA has case law that says you can search the interior of the car for a registration card, when that is a question. Now, we'll wait for some good cop to conduct a search for the DL, especially if it wasn't surrendered at the time of suspension. Also, how many times have you guys found DMV suspension letters in the dude's car. I know I have many times. Sounds like evidence he knew he was suspeneded, right? Keep thinking outside the box. Think, write and testify accordingly.

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    jmccoy

    over 5 years ago

    72 Comments

    OK guys not that big of a deal...If you have an arrest, the car is getting towed so there is your inventory search...If you dont have anything on the suspect yet and you are trying to get into the car, try to obtain verbal or written consent...if that does not work, have k-9 enroute...also dont forget your plain view doctrine and or the odor of marijuana or burning crack... just remember your list of options, and note it in the report.

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    azcopper51965

    over 5 years ago

    602 Comments

    We'll see how this plays out I guess.

  • Ultimate_sacrifice_max50

    Calis_Finest

    over 5 years ago

    84 Comments

    JUST STICK TO THE "BASIC CABLE" RULE. IF U CAN TOW IT, IT's GETTIN' TOWED! IF IT's GETTIN' TOWED, WERE GOING TO TOSS IT! NOTHING CAN BE TRANSFERRED FROM YOUR CARE & CONTROL INTO THAT OF ANOTHER WITHOUT IT HAVING BEEN PROPERLY ACCOUNTED FOR.

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    radarcop

    over 5 years ago

    254 Comments

    The key thing you should remember that the guy was arrested - hint - we must secure his vehicle for safe keeping and since we are impounding the vehicle we must take an inventory of the vehicle contents - we are not searching we are taking an inventory!

  • In_remembrance_of_oakland_pd_max50_max50_max50_max50

    Tony172649

    over 5 years ago

    336 Comments

    FYI Good explanation!!

    Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided the case of Arizona v. Gant dealing with the circumstances permitting the search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of an occupant. Below is the FLETC LGD review of the decision and its practical impact on law enforcement.

    Case Note – Police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to arrest of an occupant or recent occupant 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.

    Click HERE for the Court’s opinions (majority / concurring / dissenting).

    FACTS: Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license. Gant was handcuffed and locked in a patrol car before officers searched the passenger compartment of his car and found a firearm and cocaine. In his motion to suppress the evidence, Gant argued that it was not possible for him to access the vehicle to gain control of a weapon or evidence, and therefore the search of his vehicle was not a reasonable “search incident to arrest.”

    HELD: Police are authorized to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to arrest of an occupant or recent occupant only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. Additionally, officers may search the passenger compartment following the arrest of a recent occupant when it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.

    DISCUSSION:

    Prior case law: Chimel, Belton, and Thornton. The Supreme Court first established the search incident to arrest (“SIA”) exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969). Chimel held that police may, incident to arrest, search the arrestee’s “lunging area,” which is defined as the area from within which the arrestee might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence. The purposes of this exception are to protect arresting officers and safeguard evidence of the offense that an arrestee might conceal or destroy. The Court was asked to define the scope of vehicle SIA in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). In Belton, the Court held that when an SIA of a vehicle is justified, the entire compartment and any containers therein may be searched. In Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615 (2004), the Court added that an SIA of a vehicle may be justified even if an occupant has gotten out of the vehicle, closed the door, and walked a short distance away before being arrested. The question remaining, however, was whether the Belton and Thornton rules authorized an SIA of the vehicle regardless of the arrestee’s ability to access the passenger compartment following the arrest.

    Clarification: arrestee within reaching distance. The majority opinion in Arizona v. Gant has answered that question, holding that prior case law authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to arrest when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. The Court noted that “it will be the rare case in which an officer is unable to fully effectuate an arrest so that a real possibility of access to the arrestee’s vehicle remains.” In such a rare case, however, an SIA of the passenger compartment would be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

    An additional justification: offense-related evidence. Even if the arrestee can no longer access the vehicle’s passenger compartment, the Court held that an SIA will also be permitted “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” In many cases, such as arrests for traffic violations, there will be no reasonable basis to believe that the vehicle contains relevant evidence. In other cases, however, such as arrests for possession of controlled substances, the basis of the arrest will supply an acceptable rationale for searching the arrestee’s passenger compartment and any containers inside.

    Other vehicle search exceptions remain available. The Court noted that other established exceptions to the search warrant requirement remain available to safeguard evidence and protect the safety of officers. If an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a passenger or recent occupant of a vehicle – whether arrested or not – is dangerous and may gain access to a weapon, he may frisk the passenger compartment for weapons. (This exception is known as a Terry frisk of the vehicle.) If the officer has probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, the officer may conduct a thorough search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found. (This exception is called the “mobile conveyance exception” or the Carroll Doctrine.) Finally, if an officer conducting an arrest reasonably suspects that a dangerous person is hiding in a nearby vehicle, he may conduct a protective sweep of the vehicle by looking in places where such a person might be concealed. Although not specifically mentioned by the Court, and not a criminal search tool, an inventory of a vehicle’s contents following a lawful impound is another exception to the search warrant requirement. This administrative exception, however, may not be used as a pretext for a criminal search. Consent remains a viable option as well.

    The bottom line. To justify a search incident to arrest of a vehicle’s passenger compartment, an officer must articulate that either (1) the officer was unable to sufficiently restrain the arrestee during the search, so that it was reasonable to believe the arrestee might have been able to access the vehicle, or (2) there was a reasonable basis to believe that evidence of the crime for which the occupant of the vehicle was arrested might be found in the passenger compartment at the time of the search.

    APPLICATION TO FIELD OFFICERS AND AGENTS:

    Prepare to articulate! The Court noted that “[w]hen asked at the suppression hearing why the search was conducted, [the officer in this case] responded, ‘Because the law says we can do it.’” That answer did not – and will not – meet the government’s burden. While searches of vehicles incident to arrest have been considered “automatic” for 28 years, the holding of Gant states that more is required. Officers must be prepared to articulate facts establishing one of the permitted justifications.

    Don’t look for the loophole; it’s already closed. Some may suggest the holding in Gant encourages an unsafe practice of leaving arrestees unsecured in a nearby area to justify a search incident to arrest. Justice Scalia, however, in his concurring opinion in Thornton v. U.S., has already anticipated and answered that argument. He wrote, “if an officer leaves a suspect unrestrained nearby just to manufacture authority to search, one could argue that the search is unreasonable precisely because the dangerous conditions justifying it existed only by virtue of the officer’s failure to follow sensible procedures.”

    Unanswered questions:

    The Court held that an SIA will also be permitted “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Is this a lower standard than probable cause applicable only to evidence of the crime of arrest?

    Can an officer SIA a vehicle when persons other than the already secured arrestee are in the area who might gain access to the vehicle?

    Does this ruling, reemphasizing the original Chimel basis for SIA, extend beyond the context of SIA of a vehicle to apply to all SIA of “lunging areas?”

  • Photo_user_banned_big

    impoundguy

    over 5 years ago

    372 Comments

    I do impounds all the time...if you have cause to impound it then you can search the vehicle front to rear including the trunk.

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