- Texas narcotics cops get an anonymous tip that someone is carrying drugs in his car.
- They call a cop in a marked unit to follow him.
- The uniformed cop watches for a traffic violation (changing lanes without signaling is popular).
- The uniformed cop stops the suspect, arrests him for the traffic violation, cuffs and stuffs him, then searches his car “incident to arrest”.
The rationale of this last bit — the search of the passenger compartment of a car incident to arrest — was that Chimel v. California allowed police to search the space within an arrestee’s immediate control — “the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” The idea was to protect the officers at the scene and prevent the destruction of evidence.
New York v. Belton held that the space within an arrestee’s immediate control included the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein. This rule was used for 28 years to justify searches of the passenger compartments of vehicles even after their arrested occupants had been cuffed in the back of patrol cars (and therefore could not possibly gain possession of any weapon or destructible evidence).
Belton was “widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there [was] no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search.” (Arizona v. Gant.) This was a stupid perversion of the Chimel rule. It was designed to allow the police unwonted intrustion into our private lives. Criminal defense lawyers fussed about it, and courts upheld it.
Today, in Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court held (affirming the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling) that “the Chimel rationale authorizes police to 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.”
The consent exception to the warrant requirement survives, of course, as does the probable cause + motor vehicle exception (where, for example, the police smell marijuana smoke in the car). Also, the Court concluded in Gant, “circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is ‘reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.’” So an arrest for a drug offense might justify the search of the car, but an arrest for driving without a seatbelt would not.
The State, wrote the Court,
seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake. . . . A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found int he vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals. Indeed, the character of that threat implicates the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment—the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects.
Thanks for noticing.
But here’s the problem:
Although it appears that the State’s reading of Belton has been widely taught in police academies and that law enforcement officers have relied on the rule in conducting vehicle searches during the past 28 years, many of these searches were not justified by the reasons underlying the Chimel exception. Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation have had their consitutional right to the security of their private effects violated as a result.
To those individuals, and to those who went to prison because of evidence found in illegal Belton searches, the criminal justice system can only say, “too bad.”