Wednesday, 28 October 2009 09:51

Vehicle Searches by Police—Supreme Court Tightens the Rules

Arizona v. Gant, (2009), is a United States Supreme Court decision which held that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires law enforcement officers to demonstrate an actual and continuing threat to their safety posed by an arrestee, or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest from tampering by the arrestee, in order to justify a warrantless vehicular search incident to arrest conducted after the vehicle’s recent occupants have been arrested and secured.

The original case involved Rodney J. Gant, who was arrested by Tucson, Arizona police and charged with driving on a suspended driver’s license. Police arrested Gant in a friend's yard after he had parked his vehicle and was walking away. Gant and all other suspects on the scene were then secured in police patrol cars. The officers then searched Gant’s vehicle. After finding a weapon and a bag of cocaine, they also charged him with possession of a narcotic for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.
It is common knowledge among criminal defense lawyers, police and prosecutors that an individual’s motor vehicle is among the worst places for a criminal defendant to hide drugs or other evidence of a crime.     It is very easy for a police officer to create a set of facts that allows the police officer to do a thorough search of the interior of a motor vehicle and any closed containers within the vehicle.
A common police practice is to identify someone that may possess an illegal drug such as cocaine. The officer would then wait until the individual is in an automobile and then follow the vehicle until it violates a traffic regulation. Upon witnessing a traffic violation the officer would stop the vehicle and search all of the occupants and then search the interior of the vehicle. This practice led to many pretext arrests and many stops based primarily upon the race of the vehicles occupants. Also, this opens up the potential for set-ups where someone places contraband in a vehicle knowing it would be found in a search.
There were four main justifications for validating a police search of a vehicles interior prior to the 2009 decision in Arizona v. Gant.
1. An officer can search the interior of a vehicle if he has reasonable suspicion that someone is dangerous and may access the vehicle to gain immediate control of weapons.
2. An officer can search a vehicle’s interior if he has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity.
3. A common method for a police officer to justify a vehicle search is to arrest the driver for a traffic violation and thereafter the vehicle is impounded and as a result of the impoundment an inventory search of the entire vehicle could be performed.
4. Or, the most common method to search a vehicle was classified as a search incident to an arrest, which would include searching the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control including containers.
In 2009, the United States Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant, dramatically limited the police officers ability to justify the search of a vehicle based upon the arrest of the vehicle’s driver.
The Supreme Court in Gant limited the search of a vehicle incident to arrest of an occupant to those circumstances when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the vehicle’s interior. This is unlikely to happen in most circumstances. Usually, upon an arrest, the defendant is taken away from the vehicle and handcuffed. Removing the person from the vehicle and placing them in handcuffs would in most cases eliminate the ability of the police officer to search the vehicles interior based upon the “search incident to arrest theory.”
As a result of the Gant decision some criminal cases will be thrown-out based upon illegal vehicle searches. Criminal Defense lawyers will need to evaluate many drug possession and weapon possession cases to determine if the contraband was found based upon an illegal vehicle search.
Also, as a result of the Gant decision more defendants will find that their vehicles will be towed and impounded after being arrested for minor traffic violations. This towing and impounding of vehicles will allow the police to validly search a vehicles interior and most containers located therein as the search would be categorized and justified as an inventory search.
It is anticipated that more people will have their vehicles towed and impounded as a result of the Gant case. This will be an attempt to justify the searches conducted as an inventory search. However, the police have to have a set procedure in place that dictates how and when to impound vehicles and when to do an inventory search.     Also, if the police fail to follow the established procedures in conducting an inventory search any evidence found may be tossed out of evidence resulting in the criminal case being dismissed.
Source: Rush & Gransee, L.C.


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