EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Passing By With Every Exit Sign: Delaware Search Seemingly Violates Arizona v. Gant

A recent search of an automobile in Delaware incident to a lawful arrest seems to be exactly the type of search that used to be authorized under New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), but is now no longer authorized based upon the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Arizona v. Gant.

According to an article in delawareonline on July 3rd, "[t]hree Wilmington men face drug trafficking charges after New Castle County police stopped their car for a seat belt violation near New Castle and found cocaine and money." The three men were Lamar Tann, Quinton Turner, and Clyde Holmes. The article laid out the details of the car stop as follows:

The three were stopped in Holloway Terrace about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday when officers noticed the front passenger was not wearing a seat belt, said police Cpl. Trinidad Navarro.

When they stopped the car, Turner had no identification.

He was asked to step out and was found to be wanted by New Castle County Court of Common Pleas.

Twelve grams of cocaine were found under the driver's seat, Navarro said.

When officers searched Holmes, his pocket was stuffed full of cocaine that was in sight of the officers, he said.

The cocaine weighed 56 grams, Navarro said.

In addition to the drugs, officers seized $695 and drug paraphernalia, police said.

Subsequently, all three were charged with trafficking cocaine and other offenses. But, if I am reading the article correctly, the drugs taken from the car will likely have to be suppressed pursuant to Arizona v. Gant. It seems to me that the article is saying that the police properly stopped the car based upon the seatbelt violation, the police lawfully arrested Turner because he was wanted for some crime, and then the police searched the car incident to that lawful arrest.

And if that's what happened, the search of the car would have been a valid search incident to a lawful arrest under New York v. Belton, which held that officers can always search the passenger compartment of a vehicle as an incident to the lawful arrest of its (recent) occupant. Arizona v. Gant, however, repudiated (this reading of) Belton, finding that officers can "search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search." (or when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”).      

It thus seems that the Delaware search was unconstitutional, but it is impossible for me to say so with any certainty without learning more about the facts of the arrest/search.

(Hat tip to reader Paula for the link)



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