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An Unusual SCOTUS Majority Limits Warrantless Car Searches

By Kevin Fayle on April 21, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
In a decision that was unusual both for its holding and for the majority that created it, the US Supreme Court has restricted the situations in which police officers may search the vehicle of a suspect who has been detained in a patrol car and poses no immediate threat to the officers.

The case, Arizona v. Gant, involved a traffic stop where police arrested the driver of the vehicle, Rodney Gant, for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed him and locked him in a patrol car.  They then searched the car and found cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
At trial, Gant moved to suppress the drug evidence, but the Arizona trial court denied the motion.  Gant was subsequently convicted of drug offenses.

The Arizona Supreme Court reversed, finding that the search was unreasonable since the circumstances around Gant's arrest did not implicate the state's interest in officer safety or in preserving evidence.

The US Supreme Court has previously allowed warrantless car searches incident to a lawful arrest when the possibility exists that the suspect could access a weapon or evidence within the car's passenger area.

In this case, however, the Court found that the justifications for a warrantless search did not exist.  The suspect was already secured in a police vehicle, thus could not access any kind of weapon in the vehicle's interior.  The original arrest was also for driving on a suspended license, and the Court held that the officers could not reasonable expect to find any evidence of that offense inside the car.

In the end, the holding limited warrantless searches to those situations where "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."

What is more remarkable than the holding, perhaps, is the consitution of the majority that supported it.  The decision came down to a 5-4 split among the Justices, with Justices Stevens, Scalia, Ginsburg, Thomas, and Souter forming the majority.  These are not names you often see grouped together in a 5-4 SCOTUS decision.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kennedy and Breyer made up the dissent.

See Also:
The Holding of Gant, and Some Initial Questions as To Its Application (The Volokh Conspiracy)

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