In 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in the case of New York v. Belton, that if an occupant of a motor vehicle was arrested, the police could search the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle to look for weapons or evidence of a crime.
Under the fourth amendment such a search would normally be considered unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional, unless a search warrant was obtained. Even so, the Belton case has been the rule in Missouri ever since and gave the police an absolute right to search the entire passenger compartment of a vehicle once any occupant of that vehicle has been arrested.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant overruled its 28 year old decision in Belton by holding that the police could not search inside a vehicle, once the arrested person was away from the car, unless they had reason to believe that evidence of the crime might be found in the vehicle.
This is a huge decision. It is huge because a large proportion of drug arrests occur when the police arrest someone for an unrelated offense such as driving while revoked. Once the person is handcuffed and placed in the patrol car, the police always return to the vehicle and search the passenger compartment thoroughly.
It will be interesting to see how both police and citizens react to this change in the current search and seizure law.
Citizens may be more likely to step out of their vehicle after being pulled over so as to ensure that they will not have their vehicle searched if they were arrested for some reason.
One wonders if some police might be tempted to change their current practice of getting suspects out of a vehicle before arresting them. It’s hard to imagine a driver being arrested while still seated in his car and then being commanded to sit still while the officer searches the vehicle around him. If that were permitted, we might see the police running public service announcements telling drivers to remain in their vehicles when stopped, lest they be attacked by police officers who–misunderstanding the person’s actions-believe they are in danger.
I doubt the courts will permit the police to search vehicles by forcing arrested persons to stay inside the vehicle after arrest. If that is the case, then getting out of your car at a traffic stop would be an unnecessary precaution. It might also serve as a signal to police that evidence of a crime may be in the vehicle.
Another thing we may see is an escalation of vehicles being towed by police after an arrest (for safety reasons, of course). Then the police would thoroughly search the vehicle under what is known as the “inventory” exception to the search warrant requirement. Click here for “inventory search” explanation. A driver fortunate enough to be pulled over near a legal parking space may want to take advantage of that opportunity and deny police an excuse to tow the car.
We will have to see how this all plays out.