The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects people only from unreasonable searches and seizures, not all ones.
In the Chimel case (1969), the Supreme Court reasoned that police officers should be allowed to search an area in which a person is arrested. After all, police had to be able to protect themselves against an arrestee’s reaching for a weapon or destroying evidence.
However, soon after this decision, police officers would simply handcuff a person, take them away from that area, then come back and search it. Many people said this made no sense because once the arrestee was removed from the area, there was simply no chance he could reach for a weapon or destroy any evidence. Over the years, courts became creative in how to allow for such constitutionally-questionable searches.
Recently, the Supreme Court in the United States in Arizona v. Gant case (2009) made more sense out of this law, and they clarified what police officers are allowed to do when they search a vehicle incident to arrest.
In that case, the police knew a warrant had been issued to arrest Mr. Gant for driving on a suspended license (so they could legally arrest him on sight). They watched Mr. Gant drive into his driveway, and get out of his car. A police officer, who was more than 25 feet away from Mr. Gant, called out to him. The cop and Mr. Gant then met each other more than ten feet away from Mr. Gant’s car.
The officer arrested him because of the warrant, and placed him in his squad car in the back seat. Then the police searched Mr. Gant’s car, even though Mr. Gant posed no risk of getting a weapon from the car, or destroying anything that was inside it.
At this time, if the police wanted to search a man’s car, who also had an arrest warrant, all they had to do was wait for him to get into his car, then pull him over.
The police, relying on what the Supreme Court had said in other cases like Belton and Thornton, felt they were on sturdy ground. After all, Mr. Gant had been a “recent occupant” of the car, and Mr. Gant had been “legally arrested”.
The police found a gun, and some cocaine in the car – things that had nothing to do with Mr. Gant’s driving on a suspended license.
In this case, the Supreme Court stunned the nation. Judge Stevens said: “[We hold that the police can] search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.” The court also said that the police can search if it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest, too. So, things went well for Mr. Gant.
This was great news for defendants. And, why should be the police be allowed to go on a fishing expedition in a man’s car, especially when he is not near the car, and there is no evidence that anything in his car could related to a crime he committed?
The Utah Supreme Court echoed this this principle: If an officer arrests an individual for one crime, it does not give him or her the right to search your vehicle, in hopes of finding evidence of another. Utah v. Baker, 2010.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Gant offers more protection than was previously offered under past “automobile search” opinions. Under New York v. Belton officers could search the passenger compartment of a vehicle whenever they made a lawful arrest. Because of Gant, officers are not granted immediate search privileges when they make an arrest of a vehicle occupant and must comply with the standards set forth in Gant.
If an officer asks for your permission to search your car, politely ask him if you are entitled to refuse. When they say you can refuse, you should politely do so.
Kyler Ovard of Greg Smith and Associates