Friday, March 19, 2010
Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Arizona v Gant, it was standard practice under New York v Belton for police to conduct a search incident to arrest (SITA) of the passenger compartment whenever they arrested the driver or a recent occupant of the vehicle. Police officers had begun to treat the SITA of a vehicle as a powerful investigative tool, using traffic stops and arrests to get a free search for evidence of more serious crimes At least as a formal matter, Arizona v Gant changed all this. In Gant the Supreme Court reviewed a Fourth Amendment challenge to an automobile search incident to arrest conducted after the driver had been arrested, handcuffed and secured in the police car. The Court held that police may not do a SITA of an automobile once the arrestee “has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle” unless it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” For all practical purposes this holding means the end of Belton SITAs. It is standard protocol for police to order a potential arrestee out of his automobile, frisk him, handcuff him, and secure him in the officer’s vehicle. This means that SITAs of automobiles will almost never be justified.
When Gant came before the Supreme Court, both law enforcement and the defense bar viewed it as a big deal. Defense attorneys urged the Supreme Court to eliminate the automatic Belton search, which was widely viewed as creating incentives for pretextual traffic stops and exploratory searches. Law enforcement officials argued against overruling Belton on the grounds that eliminating the vehicle SITA would compromise officer safety and hamstring police investigators. In my view, neither side got precisely what it wanted.
This article forecasts the implications of the Court’s holdings and analysis in Gant. Part I describes the judicial landscape that gave rise to the reconsideration of Belton and analyzes the Gant opinions. Part II explores the conflicting claims by police officers and the defense bar about the likely effect of Gant on police practices. I conclude that Gant’s first holding – effectively eliminating the vehicle SITA for traffic arrests -- will make exploratory searches more costly but will not eliminate them. As to Gant’s second holding – that police may conduct a SITA if it is reasonable to believe evidence of the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle – I fault the Court for using language that tracks neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion. The Court’s Delphic language is sure to leave the lower courts in disarray. Part III considers the broader implications of Gant. I argue first that Gant represents another step in the march toward a Fourth Amendment jurisprudence of interest balancing. Second, while Gant articulated a coherent rationale for the SITA in a vehicle, the same rationale may have destabilized SITA law applicable to arrests in the home under Chimel. Finally, I challenge the familiar claim – made by those who argued against overruling Belton – that “bright line” rules are necessary in contexts that implicate concerns about police officer safety.