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Monday, January 17, 2005

Ninth Circuit: Covered, Closed Hatchback Area of Car Falls Within Belton Rule

Car_intereiorThe Ninth Circuit held last week in U.S. v. Mayo that the Belton rule, which allows officers to search the passenger compartment of a car incident to the arrest of a "recent occupant," also permits a search of the hatchback area behind the rear seat.  While a few other courts have agreed that hatchback areas may be searched under Belton, Mayo appears to be the first case to apply Belton to a hatchback area that had been closed off from the passenger compartment with a hatchback cover.  Apparently, the car in Mayo--a Honda Civic hatchback--came with one of those factory-installed covers that snaps into place and turns the hatchback into a protected storage area primarily accessible from the outside through the back hatchback door.  The real question in Mayo, therefore, was whether the closed hatchback area was more comparable to trunk space, which the police are not allowed to search incident to arrest under Belton, or the passenger compartment, which police are free to search. 

The Ninth Circuit recognized that a passenger in such a car might have "difficulty" obtaining a weapon from such a closed hatchback area (potential access to weapons was the justification in Belton for allowing searches of the passenger compartment incident to arrest).  Nevertheless, the court held that this area was more comparable to the passenger compartment than the trunk and could therefore be searched.

The Mayo holding seems like a stretch to me.  While it's possible that a passenger in the passenger compartment could access a weapon hidden in a sealed-off hatchback, this would be no easier than accessing a weapon in a trunk (most cars these days allow occupants to snap forward one of the back seats revealing an open pathway to the trunk).  The purpose of hatchback covers are in essence to convert the space into the functional equivalent of a trunk, and there just doesn't seem like a major difference between the two.  But then again, the courts at every turn have willingly expanded Belton past its initial rationale (which was already an expansion on the principles set forth in Chimel), particularly after Thornton.   Seems like the dissent in Belton was right when it warned that the Belton rule isn't so "bright-line" after all.   Or maybe it is a bright-line rule.  Indeed, the Mayo court seemingly adopted the following bright-line rule: Any back part of any vehicle may now be subject to search incident to arrest unless it is officially called "the trunk" in the owner's manual.  [Mark Godsey]

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