The Search of Cars at the Time of Arrest

Things happen quickly when the police make an arrest. Often, the person being arrested doesn’t have time to think about what his or her rights might be because the situation is overwhelming. It is, therefore, important to be familiar with your rights in case you are ever arrested. If you are arrested in or near your car then you need to understand how and to what extent the police can legally search your car at the time of your arrest.
When a Car May be Searched Incident to Arrest
In April 2009, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Arizona v. Gant which clarified the power of the police to conduct a search of a vehicle incident to an arrest. The Court ruled that unless the police have a properly executed search warrant for the car at the time of the arrest, that the police can only search the car if:
·         The suspect could reach for a weapon.  
·         The suspect could try to destroy evidence; or
·         When it is reasonable for the police to believe that there is evidence in the car that supports the crime for which the person is being arrested.
 
The Court emphasized that searches conducted without a search warrant are presumptively illegal and that a search of a vehicle incident to an arrest is an exception to that general rule. Since a search of a vehicle incident to an arrest is an exception to the rule, only very limited searches may be allowed.
 
 This ruling limits the law enforcement community’s interpretation of the 1981 Supreme Court ruling in New York v. Belton. Police officers, relying on the Belton ruling, had been routinely searching the passenger compartment of cars whenever a driver or passenger of a car was arrested. This warrantless search was conducted whenever an arrest was made without regard to whether the suspect was in a position to reach for a weapon or destroy evidence and without regard to whether there was reason to believe that there was evidence in the car supporting the arrest.
 
Application of the Supreme Court’s Decision
 
 The Court’s ruling in Arizona v. Gant requires police officers to reconsider when they may legally search cars at the time of an arrest. For example, if the suspect has been arrested and is securely in police custody then the first two exceptions would not apply because it is no longer possible for the suspect to reach for a weapon or attempt to destroy evidence in the car. Whether the third exception would apply would depend on the reason for the arrest. If the suspect is arrested for a traffic offense such as drunk driving, for example, then the police could not search the car to determine if there is evidence related to a recent robbery in the area since the suspect was not arrested for a robbery but rather for drunk driving.
 
 
The Court’s recent ruling makes clear that the prior practice of routine car searches incident to an arrest is illegal. Instead, searches may only happen in certain limited circumstances. It is a decision that law enforcement officials have criticized and that defense attorneys have welcomed. It will be interesting to see the practical effect of the ruling in the months and years to come.
 

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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