The U.S. Supreme Court Rules that Vehicle Searches without a Warrant Are Unconstitutional

Posted By Robert Bernstein || 23-Apr-2009

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. They found 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, particularly drug possession crimes.

Categories: Search & Seizure

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