Supreme Court Limits Auto Searches Incident to Arrest
The Supreme Court today decided Arizona v. Gant, the case many defense lawyers have anxiously been awaiting. And, it's good news.
The Supreme Court today sharply limited the power of police to search a suspect's car after making an arrest, acknowledging that the decision changes a rule that law enforcement has relied on for nearly 30 years.
In a decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, an unusual five-member majority said police may search a vehicle without a warrant only when the suspect could reach for a weapon or try to destroy evidence or when it is "reasonable to believe" there is evidence in the car supporting the crime at hand.
The Court didn't completely overrule Belton v. New York, but said it has been misapplied by courts. [More...]
"Blind adherence to Belton's faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches," Stevens said, adding that the court's tradition of honoring past decisions did not bind it to continue such a view of the law.
"The doctrine of stare decisis does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations."
More on Belton:
Construing Belton broadly to allow vehicle searches incident to any arrest would serve no purpose except to provide a police entitlement, and it is anathema to the Fourth Amendment to permit a warrantless search on that basis.
The bottom line:
Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies.
Justices Alito and Roberts dissented (along with Kennedy and Breye.)The opinion is here (pdf).
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