The Supreme Court has issued a ruling that places limits on when police officers can search a suspect’s motor vehicle right after making an arrest if they don’t have a warrant. With their 5-4 decision, the justices determined that police must have a warrant to search the auto if the person is locked up in the cruiser and is not a threat to the officers. Warrantless searches, however, can still take place if the passenger compartment of the car was within reach of the suspect or there is reason to believe that there is evidence in the car pertaining to the crime that resulted in the arrest.
The decision supports an Arizona high court’s ruling in favor of a man whose car was searched while he was handcuffed and seated in the back of a police car. During the search, police discovered drugs in his vehicle.
Rodney Joseph Gant had been arrested for driving on a suspended license. While the trial court said the drug evidence could be used against him, the Arizona appeals courts overturned the convictions because the officers had already secured the scene and their lives weren’t in danger when they searched his car without a warrant-even though there was no need to worry that the evidence wouldn’t be preserved.
In the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that there have been way too many cases involving people who have done nothing more than commit a traffic violation who have had their constitutional rights violated because of the way warrantless searches were conducted.
Justice Samuel Alito in his dissent, however, said the ruling turns over a police practice that allows the warrentless searches of cars right after an arrest, which can be important when it is not clear whether the person under arrest was able to get out evidence or a weapon from the vehicle. He says the new ruling also makes it hard for police to figure out when a motor vehicle is concealing criminal evidence.
Police instructors and prosecutors have expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision. Civil liberties groups, however, have maintained that police regularly invade people’s privacy when they conduct warrantless searches even though suspects hadn’t been able to access their motor vehicles.
Supreme Court limits warrantless vehicle searches, Boston.com/AP, April 21, 2009
Arizona v. Gant, Oyez.org
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The Constitution of the United States of America
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