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Motor Vehicle/Search Incident to Arrest

Jack Ryan

In Thornton v. United States, ___U.S.___, 124 S.Ct. 2127 (2004), the United States Supreme Court clarified the reach of the Search Incident to Arrest rules when the arrest involves a suspect who had been the occupant of a vehicle. The issue in Thornton is whether an officer may constitutionally search a vehicle incident to arrest when the arrestee has stepped away from the vehicle just prior to the arrest. The facts in Thornton are instructive.

Officer Nichols of the Norfolk, Virginia Police Department observed Thornton driving a Lincoln Town Car. Officer Nichols was in uniform, but driving a marked car when Thornton appeared to slow down so as to avoid driving next to Officer Nichols. Having made this observation, Officer Nichols pulled over and allowed Thornton to pass him. Officer Nichols then ran a motor vehicle records check of Thornton’s license plate and learned that the plate belonged on a 2-door Chevrolet as opposed to the Lincoln. Before Officer Nichols could pull Thornton over, Thornton pulled into a parking lot and got out of his car. Officer Nichols stopped Thornton as he walked away from his vehicle.

Officer Nichols informed Thornton of the license plate discrepancy and noted that Thornton appeared nervous. Thornton was rambling, sweating and licking his lips. Officer Nichols asked Thornton if he had weapons or narcotics on him. Thornton responded that he did not. Officer Nichols then asked Thornton if he could pat him down to which Thornton consented. Officer Nichols felt a bulge and again asked Thornton if he had any drugs on him. Thornton acknowledged that he did have drugs on him, leading to the seizure of some bags containing marijuana and a small amount of crack. The officer then handcuffed Thornton, informed him he was under arrest and placed him in the backseat of the police cruiser. Having arrested Thornton, Officer Nichols then searched the passenger-compartment of Thornton’s car a seized a .9mm handgun under the front seat. Thornton was charged federally with possession of the firearm. Thornton challenged the admissibility of the firearm at his trial arguing that since he was not occupying the vehicle at the time of his arrest, Officer Nichols could not constitutionally search his vehicle incident to his arrest.

In analyzing the facts of this case, the United States Supreme Court cited New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981),in which the Court held “that when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of an occupant of an automobile, the Fourth Amendment allows the officer to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle as a contemporaneous incident of arrest.” The Court noted that the valid custodial arrest, standing alone, supports these searches and that an officer need not articulate any further suspicion that the arrestee actually is in possession of evidence or weapons.

In looking at whether the fact that a suspect alights from his or her vehicle just before the arrest, the Court concluded that “the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is inside the vehicle.” The Court held that in cases where an arrestee is a “recent occupant” of a vehicle, officers may constitutionally search the passenger compartment of the vehicle incident to the “recent occupant’s” arrest.

Key Point: Officers may constitutionally search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to the arrest of a “recent occupant.”


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