By Office of the General Counsel
Recently the Supreme Court threw out decades of case law involving searches incident to a vehicle stop and arrest. In Gant v. Arizona, the officers had stopped and arrested a suspect for driving with a suspended license. As a result of the arrest, they searched the car and found drugs. This common occurrence caused the Supreme Court to revisit the law surrounding vehicle searches, and to formulate a new rule regarding these searches.
Previously, the Supreme Court had determined that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of an arrest of the vehicle’s recent occupant in order to ensure that the occupant could not gain access to weapons or destroy evidence. Under the new rule whether the suspect may gain access to a weapon or destroy evidence is to be determined at the time the officer is searching the suspect, and not at the time of the arrest. However, as the Court noted, the suspect is almost always searched after the suspect is removed from the car, arrested, and handcuffed or otherwise secured. Because the suspect cannot gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence while secured, there is no basis for searching the compartment of the car incident to the search of the suspect. Therefore, generally searches of the compartment of the car cannot be conducted if the suspect is secured prior to the search.
Second, the Court held that “that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”” The Court recognized that “In many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence.” On the other hand, the Court explained that the arrest of individuals for a drug offense may create a reasonable belief that evidence of that crime may be found in the vehicle. Unfortunately, as the dissent noted, the Court did not flesh out how this standard would work in practice.
Third, the Court acknowledged that if “there is probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 ( 1982), authorizes a search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found. . . Ross allows searches for evidence relevant to offenses other than the offense of arrest, and the scope of the search authorized is broader.”
Fourth, the Court did not disturb certain other exceptions to this rule. As the dissent explained,
“[I]t is not uncommon for an officer to arrest some but not all of the occupants of a vehicle. The Court’s decision in this case does not address the question whether in such a situation a search of the passenger compartment may be justified on the ground that the occupants who are not arrested could gain access to the car and retrieve a weapon or destroy evidence. [Also], there may be situations in which an arresting officer has cause to fear that persons who were not passengers in the car might attempt to retrieve a weapon or evidence from the car while the officer is still on the scene.”
Nonetheless, there is one positive aspect: both the majority and the dissent pointed to police training as supporting searches conducted by officers. The majority explained that the street level officers’ reliance upon their training was a defense against any civil suits: “Because a broad reading of Belton has been widely accepted, the doctrine of qualified immunity will shield officers from liability for searches conducted in reasonable reliance on that understanding.” Thus, even though the training may have been wrong, it is a defense against a civil suit, and would almost certainly be a defense against any attempt to impose discipline, even if criminal cases are endangered.
In the end, the bottom line from this case is — back to the training academy for everyone.