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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Search of a Vehicle Following an Arrest Must be Reasonably Necessary and Related to the Offense

Posted On: May 13, 2009 by Marc Neff

The Supreme Court of the United States recently overruled a long established precedent, found in New York v. Belton, which allowed police to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of a recent occupant’s lawful arrest. In the case of Arizona v. Gant, Gant was stopped for a minor traffic violation. It was discovered by the officer that Gant’s driver’s license had been suspended. A total of five police officers arrived on the scene and subsequently arrested Gant and his two passengers, securing each of them in individual patrol cars. The officers then searched Gant’s vehicle, finding a jacket which contained cocaine in one of the pockets.

At trial, the Arizona trial court refused to grant Gant’s motion to suppress the cocaine as evidence, following the decision in Belton which allowed the arresting officers to perform such a search. However, on appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed the conviction and distinguished this case from the circumstances in Belton. In Belton, a single officer was on scene and confronted by four unsecured suspects. Here, five officers were faced by three suspects; all of whom were secured in custody. The reasoning behind the search in Belton (Belton was arrested on a drug offense) was that: a) the outnumbering of unsecured suspects to officers on the scene posed the risk that one of the suspects could stealthily remove evidence from the vehicle prior to search; and b) that evidence of the drug offense would likely be found in the vehicle. Here, Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license. The police could not have reasonably expected to find evidence of such offense upon search of the vehicle. Further, as all suspects were in custody, no exigent, circumstances existed to perform a warrantless search.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States who affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court decision, overturning a twenty-eight (28) year old precedent established in Belton. The Court held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. By doing so, the Court established a greater expectation of privacy in one’s vehicle.

In 2006, the State of New Jersey departed from the holding in Belton on State Constitutional grounds, ultimately ruling similarly to the Arizona Supreme Court; see State v. Eckel, 185 N.J. 523 (N.J. 2006).

Suppression of Evidence

In a criminal trial, the burden is on the prosecution to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecution builds their case with evidence; some evidence stronger than other. There are rules regarding evidence, both State and Federal, which govern what evidence is admissible. Often, some or all of the evidence the prosecution wishes to use was obtained illegally, either by police or third party. An experienced criminal defense attorney is an expert in the field of evidence. Upon reviewing a defendant’s case, a criminal defense attorney will determine if some of the evidence can and should be suppressed, and will take the appropriate action.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense, contact the Law Offices of Marc Neff via phone at (215) 563-9800 or e-mail for a confidential consultation.

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Posted in: Drug Crimes