Sheree M. Krider
——– Original Message ——–
Subject: USMJP Listserv: US: Supreme Court Cuts Back Officers’ Searches
From: Richard Lake <email@example.com>
Date: Wed, April 22, 2009 4:52 am
Newshawk: The High Cost of the Drug War
Pubdate: Wed, 22 Apr 2009
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2009 The New York Times Company
Author: Adam Liptak
Note: The Supreme Court decision
SUPREME COURT CUTS BACK OFFICERS’ SEARCHES OF VEHICLES
The Supreme Court on Tuesday significantly cut back the
ability of the police to search the cars of people they arrest.
Police officers have for a generation understood themselves to be
free to search vehicles based on nothing more than the fact that they
had just arrested an occupant. That principle, Justice John Paul
Stevens acknowledged in his majority opinion, "has been widely taught
in police academies" and "law enforcement officers have relied on the
rule in conducting vehicle searches during the past 28 years."
The majority replaced that bright-line rule with a more nuanced one,
and law enforcement officials greeted it with dismay. "It’s just
terrible," William J. Johnson, the executive director of the National
Association of Police Organizations, said of the decision. "It’s
certainly going to result in less drug and weapons cases being made."
In a dissent, four justices said the majority had effectively
overruled an important and straightforward Fourth Amendment precedent
established by the court in a 1981 decision, New York v. Belton.
Justice Stevens denied that. The precedent of Belton had often been
applied too broadly, he said. Vehicle searches should be allowed only
in two situations, he wrote: when the person being arrested is close
enough to the car to reach in, possibly to grab a weapon or tamper
with evidence; or when the arresting officer reasonably believes that
the car contains evidence pertinent to the very crime that prompted the
In the case decided Tuesday, Rodney J. Gant, an Arizona man, was
arrested on an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended
license. He was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car while his car
The police found cocaine and a gun, and Mr. Gant was convicted on
drug charges and sentenced to three years. The Arizona Supreme Court
ruled that the search of Mr. Gant’s car had violated the Fourth
Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and suppressed the evidence
against him. The United States Supreme Court affirmed that decision on
Justice Stevens, joined by the unusual alliance of Justices Antonin
Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
said the court had agreed to hear the case because the conventional
view of the Belton decision had been widely criticized. "The chorus
that has called for us to revisit Belton," Justice Stevens wrote,
"includes courts, scholars and members of this court who have
questioned that decision’s clarity and fidelity to Fourth Amendment
Police officers and lower courts, Justice Stevens wrote, had failed
to take adequate account of the two rationales that animated Belton:
protecting the safety of arresting officers and safeguarding evidence
of crimes. Those rationales only make sense, he said, "when the
arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance" of the car.
At the same time, the majority announced a new justification for a
search in connection with an arrest, one drawing on a 2004
concurrence questioning Belton from Justice Scalia. Searches of
vehicles are permissible, Justice Stevens said, "when it is
reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might
be found in the vehicle."
As a practical matter, that means many arrests for traffic offenses
will not by themselves allow police officers to search vehicles.
Arrests for other kinds of crimes, though, may well supply a basis
for a search.
The decision, Arizona v. Gant, No. 07-542, was the last to be issued
from among the cases the court heard in its October sitting, and it
was marked by an uneasy compromise that probably explains the delay.
Justice Scalia said he would have overruled Belton outright and
substituted a rule that allowed searches of vehicles in connection
with arrests only where the search seeks evidence of the crime for
which the arrest was made or another one for which there is probable
cause. He added that he joined the majority opinion to avoid a 4-1-4
decision "that leaves the governing rule uncertain."
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined in full by Chief Justice John G.
Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and for the most part by
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, said the broad Belton rule was sensible
and easy to apply.
On the other hand, the new rule allowing searches for evidence of the
crime that prompted the arrest, Justice Alito said, "is virtually
certain to confuse law enforcement officers and judges for some time to
And the part of the majority opinion allowing searches only when the
person arrested can reach the car "may endanger arresting officers,"
Justice Alito wrote.
Mr. Johnson of the police association explained the problem. "The
case creates a temptation," he said, "for police to leave the
occupant of a vehicle unsecured in the belief that they are now
operating within the Fourth Amendment in terms of being able to
search the vehicle."
Though Justice Stevens did not concede that Tuesday’s decision
overruled Belton, he did say that fidelity to precedent was no reason
to allow constitutional violations to continue.
"Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious that a traffic
violation," he wrote, "have had their constitutional right to the
security of their private effects violated" by the broad rule struck
down on Tuesday.