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United States: U.S. Supreme Court Restricts Searches of Vehicles During Arrests

(May 5, 2009) The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a warrantless search of a vehicle incident to an arrest is constitutional only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the car's passenger compartment at the time of the search or if it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense for which the occupant was arrested.

The case heard by the Court concerned evidence seized in the search of a car driven by Rodney Gant, who was arrested for driving with a suspended license. Gant's vehicle was searched while Gant was in the back of a patrol car. The search uncovered a bag of cocaine. At his trial before an Arizona court on drug charges, Gant moved to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search as a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids “unreasonable searches.” The trial court declined to suppress the evidence, ruling that a warrantless search of a car incident to arrest is permissible, and Gant was convicted. On appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed, holding that a warrantless search is only permissible to secure evidence relevant to the arrest or to protect the officers from danger.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court, holding that a warrantless search of a vehicle incident to arrest is allowed “only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” or where there is reason to believe that there is evidence “relevant to the crime of arrest” in the vehicle. (Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. __, No. 07-542, Slip op. (Apr. 21, 2009), available at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-542.pdf.)