Searches without a warrant will now be considered unreasonable and illegal
in most circumstances. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled
that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have
arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety
threat to officers.
The justices divided in an unusual fashion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy
were in dissent along with Alito. The court's 5-4 decision puts new
limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after
the arrest of a suspect, particularly when the alleged offense is nothing
more serious than a traffic violation.
Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion that warrantless
vehicle searches still may be conducted if a car's passenger compartment
is within reach of a suspect who has been removed from the vehicle or
there is reason to believe evidence will be found of the crime that led
to the arrest. He stated, "Countless individuals guilty of nothing
more serious than a traffic violation have had their constitutional right
to the security of their private effects violated as a result."
This new ruling which is binding precedent on all 50 states upsets a police
practice that has developed since the court, 28 years ago, first authorized
warrantless vehicle searches immediately following an arrest.
The Courts decision was based on the case of a defendant, Rodney Joseph
Gant, who was handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car and under
police supervision when Tucson, Ariz., police officers searched his car.
cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
The trial court said the evidence could be used against Gant, but Arizona
appeals courts overturned the convictions because the officers already
had secured the scene and thus faced no threat to their safety or concern
about evidence being preserved.
Gant was placed under arrest for driving on a suspended license and he
already was at least 8 feet away from his car when he was arrested.
This decision is an important civil liberties issue which reinforces that
the constitution protects individuals from warrantless searches without
probable cause. Prior to this ruling, police officers routinely invade
suspects' privacy by conducting warrantless searches when there is
no chance suspects could have access to their vehicles. Los Angeles Criminal
Attorney's and their clients should be knowledgeable of this changing
area of law and the possible defenses it now allows in numerous cases,
drug possession crimes.