Myth or reality?

Arizona v. Gant drastically limits police vehicle searches.

On August 25, 1999, Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. After he was handcuffed and locked in the backseat of a police car, officers searched the passenger compartment of his car and found cocaine in the pocket of a jacket that was sitting on one of the seats. A trial court denied Gant’s request to have the cocaine excluded at trial, but the Arizona Supreme Court reversed that decision, arguing that the search was unreasonable because, since Gant was locked up in the police car, there was no threat to officer safety or risk that the evidence would have been destroyed in the absence of an immediate search. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the police can only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle following a lawful arrest when it is reasonable to believe that (1) the arrestee may have access to the vehicle at the time of the search or (2) the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. In essence, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the search of Gant’s car was unjustified and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Gant decision altered the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in New York v. Belton, a case in which officers were essentially given carte blanche to search vehicle passenger compartments following lawful arrests. Belton was controversial because even if an arrestee was locked up safely and did not pose any security threat, officers could still search the vehicle passenger compartment without probable cause. They were basically able to avoid the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause requirement. Because Gant essentially overturns Belton, it has not been well-received by the law enforcement community. Indeed, there is a perception in many corners that the Gant decision strips the police of important aspects of their search authority. But there are always two sides to every story.

Gant is not a case that will forever alter the face of law enforcement. While it restricts police search authority to some extent, it is important to bear certain facts in mind. First, the decision was limited strictly to post-arrest vehicle passenger compartment searches—a relatively narrow type of search, and certainly not the most common. Second, in the event officers search a vehicle passenger compartment following an arrest, so long as they adopt a mindset that the object of the search is related to the arresting offense, they will be in the clear. And even if they seek evidence unrelated to the arresting offense, they may be able to discover and seize such evidence under the well-known “plain view” doctrine (see p. 204 in your book). Finally, if a person is arrested, he or she can no longer drive the vehicle. So what happens? The vehicle gets impounded, and the Supreme Court has long upheld vehicle inventory searches. These searches are not limited to the passenger compartment; they extend to the whole vehicle. If there is any suspicion that contraband is hidden in a car, an inventory search will uncover it.

Writing Assignment: Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Dakota v. Opperman (428 U.S. 364) and summarize the requirements for a valid vehicle inventory search.