U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Narrows Belton and Limits Car Searches

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The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with a criminal defendant who challenged a police search of his car that turned up cocaine and a gun.

Police searched Rodney Gant’s car after he was arrested on a warrant for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed and placed in a squad car. The state had argued the search was justified as being incident to arrest, but the Arizona Supreme Court said the rationale did not justify the search because there was no continuing threat from the suspect.

In a 5-4 ruling (PDF), the Supreme Court agreed, ruling police needed a warrant to search Gant’s car since he posed no safety threat, the Associated Press reports. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion, SCOTUSblog reports.

Stevens said police may not search a vehicle under the rationale of a search incident to arrest unless the arrestee can access the interior of the car, or unless police have a reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

Stevens cited privacy concerns in rejecting the state’s argument that the search should be allowed. “A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals,” Stevens wrote.

Stevens noted the argument by dissenters that the 1981 Supreme Court ruling New York v. Belton required a contrary ruling.

“Blind adherence to Belton’s faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches,” Stevens said. “The doctrine of stare decisis does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer was among the dissenters. He said he would have advocated adopting a better rule than that advanced in Belton—if the case were before the court on first impression. Since it wasn’t, he said he was bound by stare decisis.

Justice Antonin Scalia joined the majority opinion, explaining in a concurrence that he would also adopt a different rule—one that allows vehicle searches incident to arrest only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.

But Scalia said he didn’t want to see a 4-1-4 outcome in the case, and he didn’t want to leave the current understanding of Belton in effect, an outcome he considered “a greater evil” than Stevens’ narrowing of the decision.

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