Criminal Procedure, Pages 226–236

Arizona v. Gant

2009

Facts:

Police went to a house after a tip that it was being used to sell drugs. Defendant answered and said the owner was not home, so they left. A records check revealed that defendant's license had been suspended however, so police returned that night. Defendant was not home, but two others at the house were arrested. Defendant returned and got out of his car. Then, while 10–12 feet away from his car, he was arrested. After he was in the patrol car, police searched defendant's vehicle and found cocaine.

Procedural History:

  • Google Scholar LogoPage 227

    The trial court rejected the State's contention that the officers had probable cause to search Gant's car for contraband when the search began, but it denied the motion to suppress. Relying on the fact that the police saw Gant commit the crime of driving without a license and apprehended him only shortly after he exited his car, the court held that the search was permissible as a search incident to arrest. A jury found Gant guilty on both drug counts, and he was sentenced to a 3-year term of imprisonment.

  • Google Scholar LogoPage 226

    Because Gant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons or evidence at the time of the search, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, as defined in Chimel v. California, and applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, did not justify the search in this case.

Issue:

Does the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement apply to vehicle searches where the defendant is arrested out of reach of his car?

Reasoning:

  • Under Chimel, police may search incident to arrest only in the space within an arrestee's "immediate control."

  • There's no risk of a defendant grabbing a weapon or destroying evidence when he is not within reach of his vehicle, and one would not expect evidence of a suspended license to be in the car anyway.

Holding:

The search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement does not apply to vehicle searches where the defendant cannot access his car at the time of arrest. Affirmed.

Concurring Opinion:

Scalia: Searching after arrest does not improve officer safety. Only the likelihood of evidence of the crime should justify searches incident to arrest.

Dissenting Opinion:

Alito: The precedence established in Belton and Thorton should be followed. Belton was clear and unequivocal that this type of search is allowed, and Thorton reaffirmed it recently. The circumstances justifying these decisions have not changed, and the standard established in Belton is still workable.

Takeaway:

Tompkins: Police have the right to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to the arrest of an occupant of the vehicle if he has access to it or if the police reasonably believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime arrested for.

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