Supreme Court Changes Law on Vehicle Searches

Supreme Court Changes Law on Vehicle Searches

By Aaron Nisenson, General Counsel, I.U.P.A.

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.

However, the Court explained that there are a number of exceptions to this new rule.  First, the Court recognized that a car could be searched if there was the possibility that the suspect could reenter the car.  Therefore, if the suspect is physically searched before he is arrested and secured, then the compartment may be searched,  However, as the dissent noted, this exposes the officers to  greater danger because “the ability to search the car turned on whether an arresting officer chooses to secure an arrestee prior to conducting a search, rather than searching first and securing the arrestee later, the rule would “create a perverse incentive for an arresting officer to prolong the period during which the arrestee is kept in an area where he could pose a danger to the officer.””  Therefore, the Court recognized that these situations are “rare.”  Similarly, if a suspect is stopped and searched, but is not arrested and may therefore return to the car, the officer can search the car to ensure that there are no weapons where the officers reasonably believe the suspect is dangerous and may gain access to a weapon.  Of course, this presents the odd result that a suspect’s car is less likely to get searched if he is arrested than if he is not arrested.

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.”

Finally, there may be other avenues for reviewing the contents of the car, such as by inventorying the contents if the car is taken into possession of the department.

The decision also points to two practical issues.  First, bad facts make bad law.  The Court explained the factual differences between this case, and the Belton case that first allowed vehicle searches incident to an arrest: “it is hard to imagine two cases that are factually more distinct, as Belton involved one officer confronted by four unsecured arrestees suspected of committing a drug offense and this case involves several officers confronted with a securely detained arrestee apprehended for driving with a suspended license.”

Second, never tell a judge what the law says.  As a young lawyer I tried to tell a judge what the law said —  anyone experienced in Court can anticipate the response: “you don’t tell me what the law says, I tell you what the law says.”  In this case, the Supreme Court specifically noted that “When asked at the suppression hearing why the search was conducted, Officer Griffith responded: “Because the law says we can do it.”” And the Supreme Court responded by telling everyone what the law says.

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.