Arizona v. Gant

Arizona v. Gant

United States Supreme Court
556 U.S. ___ (2009)

ISSUE: May a police officer properly search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and its contents as a warrantless search incident to arrest if the arrestees are secured and cannot possibly reach any of the contents of the vehicle?
HOLDING: No, the police are authorized to 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.
FACTS:
  • Police received an anonymous tip that a certain house was being used to sell drugs
  • Officers went to the house, and Gant answered the door and provided ID.  Officers later found that Gant's DL had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest
  • Officers returned later that day and when Gant drove up, he exited the vehicle and the officers arrested him away from his car and put into a patrol car
  • Officers then searched Gant's car and found a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backset
RULES:
  • Robinson: The exception to the warrant requirement of a search incident to arrest derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations
  • Chimel: A search incident to arrest may only include the arrestee's person and the area within his immediate control
  • Belton: When an officer lawfully arrests the occupant of a vehicle, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the vehicle and any containers therein
REASONING:
  • Belton reading too broadBelton does not authorize an officer to search a vehicle incident to arrest under all circumstances including when the arrestee is secured and poses no threat
    • Police are authorized to 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
  • Exception: When it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle, a search incident to arrest of the vehicle is justified
    • Does not apply for arrest for traffic violations
  • Gant's search unreasonable: Because Gant could not have accessed his car at the time of the search, the search was unreasonable

COMMENTS:

  • Gant essentially limits Belton to its facts, i.e., when an arrestee is unsecured and could possibly reach into the vehicle at the time of arrest.
  • Practitioners, you will want to cite Gant for vehicle searches incident to a lawful arrest. This case significantly changes the game when it comes to vehicle searches, so chances are courts and other attorneys will still be citing Belton. Be sure to avoid this legal anachronism.
  • However, just because Gant severely limits searches incident to arrest of vehicles, that does not necessarily mean that significantly more suppression motions will be granted. The "inevitable discovery" exception to the exclusionary rule will probably prevent suppression in many cases (based on inevitable execution of an inventory search).

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