Sunday, May 3, 2009

Belton Effectively Overruled

Perhaps the most important criminal law decision issued so far this year, was that of the United States Supreme Court in Arizona v Gant, — U.S. —, 2009 WL 1045962, in which the Court effectively (although not admittedly) overturned its holding in New York v Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) regarding the permissible scope of incident of arrest searches when a person is arrested in an automobile.

In 1999 Rodney Gant’s car was searched after Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and secured in the back of a patrol car. With several officers at the scene, officers found cocaine in Gant’s car during the search.

The Court held that a search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle following an arrest is allowed “only if [1] the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or [2] it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies.”

In a majority opinion by Justice Stevents,who dissented in Belton and is the only still serving member from the Court which decided Belton, the Court held that adherence to Belton was based on faulty assumptions which could "authorize myriad unconstitutional searches." Stevens wrote that the only exception to law enforcement being required to obtain a warrant prior to a search involved:

"... only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. . . . [w]e also conclude that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle."

Thus, the holding of Chimel v California (395 US 752 [1969]), continues to be good law, insofar as the search incident to arrest can be justified by the suspect’s ability to lunge to an area and destroy evidence or reach a weapon. However, once the suspect is handcuffed and moved away from the vehicle, the suspect’s ability to reach evidence or a weapon is eliminated, or at least significantly reduced, and the vehicle cannot be searched without a warrant, under an incident to arrest exception to the arrant requirement.

By the way, the key vote was that of Justice Scalia who wrote a concurring decision stating that although he agreed with the four dissenting justices that,in fact, this new decision was overturning Belton, something denied by Justice Stevens' decision, he thought that Belton was wrongly decided and should be overturned. Thus, he joined the Stevens' opinion.

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