Supreme Court Limits Police’s Ability to Search Your Car

Adam Liptak
New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday significantly cut back the ability of the police to search the cars of people they arrest.

Police officers have for a generation understood themselves to be free to search vehicles based on nothing more than the fact that they had just arrested an occupant. That principle, Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged in his majority opinion, “has been widely taught in police academies” and “law enforcement officers have relied on the rule in conducting vehicle searches during the past 28 years.”

The majority replaced that bright-line rule with a more nuanced one, and law enforcement officials greeted it with dismay. “It’s just terrible,” William J. Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said of the decision. “It’s certainly going to result in less drug and weapons cases being made.”

In a dissent, four justices said the majority had effectively overruled an important and straightforward Fourth Amendment precedent established by the court in a 1981 decision, New York v. Belton.

Justice Stevens denied that. The precedent of Belton had often been applied too broadly, he said. Vehicle searches should be allowed only in two situations, he wrote: when the person being arrested is close enough to the car to reach in, possibly to grab a weapon or tamper with evidence; or when the arresting officer reasonably believes that the car contains evidence pertinent to the very crime that prompted the arrest.

In the case decided Tuesday, Rodney J. Gant, an Arizona man, was arrested on an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. He was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car while his car was searched.

The police found cocaine and a gun, and Mr. Gant was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to three years. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the search of Mr. Gant’s car had violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and suppressed the evidence against him. The United States Supreme Court affirmed that decision on Tuesday.

Justice Stevens, joined by the unusual alliance of Justices Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the court had agreed to hear the case because the conventional view of the Belton decision had been widely criticized. “The chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton,” Justice Stevens wrote, “includes courts, scholars and members of this court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles.”

Police officers and lower courts, Justice Stevens wrote, had failed to take adequate account of the two rationales that animated Belton: protecting the safety of arresting officers and safeguarding evidence of crimes. Those rationales only make sense, he said, “when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance” of the car.

At the same time, the majority announced a new justification for a search in connection with an arrest, one drawing on a 2004 concurrence questioning Belton from Justice Scalia. Searches of vehicles are permissible, Justice Stevens said, “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

As a practical matter, that means many arrests for traffic offenses will not by themselves allow police officers to search vehicles. Arrests for other kinds of crimes, though, may well supply a basis for a search.

The decision, Arizona v. Gant, No. 07-542, was the last to be issued from among the cases the court heard in its October sitting and was marked by an uneasy compromise that probably explains the delay.

Justice Scalia said he would have overruled Belton outright and substituted a rule that allowed searches of vehicles in connection with arrests only where the search seeks evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made or another one for which there is probable cause. He added that he joined the majority opinion to avoid a 4-1-4 decision “that leaves the governing rule uncertain.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and for the most part by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said the broad Belton rule was sensible and easy to apply.

On the other hand, the new rule allowing searches for evidence of the crime that prompted the arrest, Justice Alito said, “is virtually certain to confuse law enforcement officers and judges for some time to come.”

And the part of the majority opinion allowing searches only when the person arrested can reach the car “may endanger arresting officers,” Justice Alito wrote.

Mr. Johnson of the police association explained the problem. “The case creates a temptation,” he said, “for police to leave the occupant of a vehicle unsecured in the belief that they are now operating within the Fourth Amendment in terms of being able to search the vehicle.”

Though Justice Stevens did not concede that Tuesday’s decision overruled Belton, he did say that fidelity to precedent was no reason to allow constitutional violations to continue.

“Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious that a traffic violation,” he wrote, “have had their constitutional right to the security of their private effects violated” by the broad rule struck down on Tuesday.

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