Arizona v. Gant

In Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009), the United States Supreme Court held that where there is no possibility that an arrestee could reach into the area that law enforcement officers seek to search, the justifications for the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement—protecting arresting officers and safeguarding evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy—are absent, and the exception does not apply.

After defendant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car, police searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. When asked at the suppression hearing why the search was conducted, police responded: “Because the law says we can do it.” The Arizona Supreme Court disagree, holding that because defendant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons or evidence at the time of the search, the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, as defined in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), and applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), did not justify the search, requiring exclusion.

On certiorari, the Supreme Court began by reiterating that the “search incident to lawful arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement “derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations.” In Chimel, the Court limited the scope of such searches to “the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control.” This limitation ensures that the scope of a search incident to arrest is commensurate with its purposes of protecting arresting officer and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy.

In Belton, the Court considered Chimel’s application to the automobile context, concluding that when an officer lawfully arrests the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the automobile and any containers therein. This holding was widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. On finding that this broad interpretation of Belton had converted the exception into an impermissible police entitlement, the Gant Court distinguished Belton, thereby narrowing its scope. Unlike Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, Gant involved five officers and only three arrestees, all of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the officers searched defendant’s car. Because the circumstances in Gant met neither justification for the warrant exception—threat to officer safety or evidence—the Court deemed the search a constitutional violation, contrary to the established reading of Belton.

The Court held that Belton permits an officer to conduct a vehicle search only when an arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle 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. Ultimately narrowing the permissible scope of searches incident to lawful arrest, the Court summarized: “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.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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