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.