Supreme Court Undoes Belton, Dramatically Limits Car Searches

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In a stunning 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today reversed its longstanding bright-line rule which had permitted warrantless car searches after an arrest, even when there was no concern for officer safety or the preservation of evidence. The case is Arizona v Gant.

Writing for the majority in this important decision, Justice Stevens held that the police may only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, pursuant to the arrest of a recent occupant, if it is reasonable to believe that the arrested person might access the car while it’s being searched, or that the car contains evidence of the crime for which that person was arrested.

Interestingly, the votes were contrary to common stereotype. The majority, which limited police powers, included the two most right-wing justices in the popular mind, Scalia and Thomas. The minority, which would have expanded police powers, included two fairly liberal justices, Kennedy and Breyer.

Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. After he was arrested, the police handcuffed him and locked him in the back of their cruiser. Once he was secured, the police then searched his car and found a jacket on the back seat. In a pocket of that jacket, they found some cocaine.

The trial judge in Arizona denied the motion to suppress, saying that the police are allowed to conduct such a warrantless search of a car incident to arrest. The police had seen Gant driving without a license, so the search was incident to a lawful arrest, and that was enough for the trial court. The Supreme Court, after all, had ruled in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) that a warrantless vehicle search incident to lawful arrest was proper. At the suppression hearing, one of the officers explained that the search was done “because the law says we can do it.”

This is actually the common interpretation of Belton. It is widely regarded (and reviled) as a bright-line rule. Stevens pointed out in today’s opinion that it “has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search.” He added that “the chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton includes courts, scholars, and Members of this Court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and its fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles.”

The bright line has seemed only brighter in the past decade, however, especially after Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), which held that the police could seize evidence in plain view within a car even after an arrest for a mere traffic violation, regardless of whether there was an ulterior motive in making the traffic stop. So the trial court’s ruling was not a surprise.

Despite the common interpretation, Gant appealed, arguing that Belton shouldn’t be read so broadly as that. It shouldn’t permit a search of the car when the arrestee poses no present threat to the officers. And it shouldn’t permit a search of the car when there is no way it could contain evidence of the crime for which he’d been arrested. There was simply no exigency that satisfied the policy underlying the Belton rule.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The Arizona Supreme Court found that Belton only had to do with how much searching could go on during a vehicle search incident to arrest, and did not have to do with whether such a search was permissible once the scene was secure. The Supreme Court of the United States had explained its underlying policy back in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), saying that the reasons justifying warrantless search incident to arrest is for the safety of the officers, and for the preservation of destructible evidence. In this case, those justifications did not exist at the time of the search.

The State of Arizona filed cert, arguing that the bright-line rule of Belton permitted the search, and that the common interpretation is the right one.

Writing for the majority, Stevens said that the bright-line rule, though the common interpretation, is the wrong interpretation. He saw that this came about because of an inappropriate reliance on Brennan’s dissent in Belton. Brennan had felt that the Belton rule created a legal fiction that the interior of a car is always within the immediate control of an arrestee, even when that person is no longer near the car at the time of the search.

Stevens acknowledged that this reading leads to absurd outcomes, including searched “incident to arrest” after the arrestee had long since left the scene.

To avoid such absurdity, the Court rejected the bright-line interpretation, and held that the underlying Chimel policy only authorizes vehicle searches incident to arrest “when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”

The Court added a second condition when such searches are permissible, derived not from Chimel but from Scalia’s concurring opinion in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 632 (2004). (Yet another example of a concurring or dissenting opinion later becoming law of the land.)

This second condition is when, based on the individual circumstances, it would be reasonable to believe there is evidence relevant to the particular crime for which the suspect was arrested.

The bright-line rule has clearly been demolished, and replaced with a case-by-case analysis of the facts.

Now bright-line rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of themselves. There is a tradeoff between the necessity to account for the vagaries of real life, and the necessity for an easily-understood rule that police can follow. Both considerations are necessary for the protection of individual liberties. If the line is too bright, then law enforcement can ignore common sense and violate rights just because they can. But if the rule is too convoluted, to take into account all the vagaries of real life, then law enforcement won’t understand it, and risks violating rights by accident (or on purpose).

Stevens came up with a rule here that we think is easy enough to understand. The police can conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to arrest if:
(1) the arrestee can still reach into the passenger compartment, or
(2) there’s reason to believe that the car contains evidence relevant to the crime he was arrested for. That’s not going to cause any confusion. Police officers and trial judges won’t have a hard time applying it.

– – –

There has been a movement in American jurisprudence away from formalism and bright lines, toward balancing. Instead of emphasizing bright-line rules requiring warrants, or dispensing with the need, the courts have been leaning more towards whatever is reasonable under the particular circumstances. A judicial, backward-looking approach, rather than a legislative one.

This ruling clearly fits that trend.

Well, except for Scalia’s concurring opinion. This ruling is in large part a result of his Thornton concurrence, but his focus is still a legislative, forward-looking approach, at least with respect to the process of judicial interpretation. His first sentence begins: “to determine what is an ‘unreasonable’ search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, we look first to the historical practices the Framers sought to preserve…”

We find this concurrence to be almost as good a read as his dissents. He lays plain the absurdities of the bright-line rule, only hinted at by the majority opinion. He does acknowledge that the Founders weren’t thinking of this stuff at all. And he tears the dissent of fellow conservative Alito to shreds. But we’ll let you read it all for yourself.

For now, suffice it to say that a major case was decided today, and the ruling is a good one for defendants and law enforcement both.

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