The Law Office of Mark Deniz has the privilege of working with some of the best young legal minds in San Diego. One of these persons is Alyssa Frazier. Alyssa is a law student at Thomas Jefferson School of Law. She is on the law review and one of the top of her class. She has an intense desire to help people. She was invited to write on subjects that she comes across while working with the firm.
Today, she is writing about San Diego DUI and a Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest.
San Diego DUI and a Search
Incident to a Lawful Arrest
When an officer lawfully arrests someone, they are able to
do a limited search incident to that arrest to gather evidence which may be
compromised by the arrestee, and to ensure the safety of the officer. The
officer is not allowed to search every area they desire to search, but are
limited depending on the location the arrestee was arrested. For example, if
someone was arrested in the home, the officers are allowed to check the
“grabbing” area, or the area within the arrestee’s reach.
What does this
mean when you are arrested for a San Diego DUI?
This means that if an officer arrests you for a San Diego DUI, they
are able to search the passenger compartment of your vehicle to ensure there
are no weapons present, and to search for evidence of the offense arrested for,
which may be compromised by the arrestee. The passenger compartment of the car
does not just include the front passenger seat, but includes all of the
passenger seats in your car, and any containers within the area. A search is reasonable if you are not yet
secure, and you are within reaching distance of the passenger compartment, or
if the police expect to find evidence of the San Diego DUI. Thus, an officer can, in some
cases, search your vehicle after an arrest for a San Diego DUI.
129 S.Ct. 1710
Supreme Court of the
Rodney Joseph GANT.
Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
*335 After Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a
suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car, police
officers searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on
the backseat. Because Gant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons
or evidence at the time of the search, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the
search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant
requirement, as defined in Chimel v.
California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), and applied
to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton,
453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981), did not justify the search
in this case. We agree with that conclusion.
police may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee’s “
‘immediate control,’ ” meaning “the area from within which he might gain
possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” 395 U.S., at 763, 89 S.Ct.
2034. The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel ‘s reaching-distance rule determine Belton ‘s scope. Accordingly, we hold that Belton does not authorize a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s
arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of
the vehicle. Consistent with the holding in Thornton
v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004), and
following the suggestion in Justice SCALIA’s opinion concurring in the judgment
in that case, id., at 632, 124 S.Ct.
2127, we also conclude that circumstances unique to the automobile context
justify a search incident to arrest when it is reasonable to believe that
evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.
On August 25, 1999, acting on an anonymous tip that the
residence at 2524 North Walnut Avenue was being used to sell drugs, Tucson
police officers Griffith and Reed knocked on the front door and asked to speak
to the owner. Gant answered the door and, after identifying himself, stated that *336 he expected the owner to return later.
The officers left the residence and conducted a records check, which revealed
that Gant’s driver’s license had been suspended and there was an outstanding
warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.
When the officers returned to the house that evening, they
found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of
it. After a third officer arrived, they arrested the man for providing a false
name and the woman for possessing drug paraphernalia. Both arrestees were
handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars when Gant arrived. The officers
recognized his car as it entered the driveway, and Officer Griffith confirmed
that Gant was the driver by shining a flashlight into the car as it drove by
him. Gant parked at the end of the driveway, got out of his car, and shut the
door. Griffith, who was about 30 feet away, called to Gant, and they approached
each other, meeting 10–to–12 feet from Gant’s car. Griffith immediately
arrested Gant and handcuffed him.
Because the other arrestees were secured in the only patrol
cars at the scene, Griffith called for backup. When two more officers arrived,
they locked Gant in the backseat of their vehicle. After Gant had been
handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, two officers searched his
car: One of them found a gun, and the other discovered a bag of cocaine in the
pocket of a jacket on the backseat.
Gant was charged with two offenses—possession of a narcotic
drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia (i.e., the plastic bag in which the cocaine was found). He moved to
suppress the evidence seized from his car on the ground that the warrantless
search violated the Fourth Amendment. Among other things, Gant argued that Belton did not authorize the search of
his vehicle because he posed no threat to the officers after he was handcuffed
in the patrol car and because he was arrested for a traffic offense for which
no evidence could be found in his vehicle. When asked at the *337 suppression hearing why the search was
conducted, Officer Griffith responded: “Because the law says we can do it.”
The trial court rejected the State’s contention that the
officers had probable cause to search Gant’s car for contraband when the search
began, id., at 18, 30, but it denied
the motion to suppress. Relying on the fact that the police saw Gant commit the
crime of driving without a license and apprehended him only shortly after he
exited his car, the court held that the search was permissible as a search
incident to arrest. Id., at 37. A
jury found Gant guilty on both drug counts, and he was sentenced to a 3–year
term of imprisonment.
After protracted state-court proceedings, the Arizona
Supreme Court concluded that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable within
the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The court’s opinion discussed at length
our decision in Belton, which held
that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any
containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of an arrest of the vehicle’s
recent occupant. 216 Ariz. 1, 3–4, 162 P.3d 640, 642–643 (2007) (citing 453
U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860). The court distinguished Belton as a case
concerning the permissible scope of a vehicle search incident to arrest and
concluded that it did not answer “the threshold question whether the police may
conduct a search incident to arrest at all once the scene is secure.” 216
Ariz., at 4, 162 P.3d, at 643. Relying on our earlier decision in Chimel, the court observed that the
search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement is justified by
interests in officer safety and evidence preservation. 216 Ariz., at 4, 162
P.3d, at 643. When “the justifications underlying Chimel no longer exist because the scene is secure and the arrestee
is handcuffed, secured in the back of a patrol car, and under the supervision
of an officer,” the court concluded, a “warrantless search of the arrestee’s
car cannot be justified as necessary to protect the officers at the scene
or *338 prevent the destruction of
evidence.” Id., at 5, 162 P.3d, at
644. Accordingly, the court held that the search of Gant’s car was
The dissenting justices would have upheld the search of
Gant’s car based on their view that “the validity of a Belton search … clearly does not depend on the presence of the Chimel rationales in a particular case.”
Id., at 8, 162 P.3d, at 647. Although
they disagreed with the majority’s view of Belton, the dissenting justices
acknowledged that “[t]he bright-line rule embraced in Belton has long been criticized and probably merits
reconsideration.” 216 Ariz., at 10, 162 P.3d, at 649. They thus “add[ed their]
voice[s] to the others that have urged the Supreme Court to revisit Belton.” Id., at 11, 163 P.3d, at 650.
The chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton includes courts, scholars, and
Members of this Court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and its
fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles. We therefore granted the State’s
petition for certiorari. 552 U.S. 1230, 128 S.Ct. 1443, 170 L.Ed.2d 274 (2008).
Consistent with our precedent, our analysis begins, as it
should in every case addressing the reasonableness of a warrantless search,
with the basic rule that “searches conducted outside the judicial process,
without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under
the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and
well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v.
United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967)
(footnote omitted). Among the exceptions to the warrant requirement is a search
incident to a lawful arrest. See Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392, 34
S.Ct. 341, 58 L.Ed. 652 (1914). The exception derives from interests in officer
safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest
situations. See United States v. Robinson,
414 U.S. 218, 230–234, 94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427 (1973); Chimel, 395 U.S., at 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034.
*339 In Chimel, we
held that a search incident to arrest may only include “the arrestee’s person
and the area ‘within his immediate control’—construing that phrase to mean the
area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible
evidence.” Ibid. That limitation,
which continues to define the boundaries of the exception, ensures that the
scope of a search incident to arrest is commensurate with its purposes of
protecting arresting officers and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of
arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy. See ibid. (noting that searches incident to arrest are reasonable “in order to remove any weapons [the
arrestee] might seek to use” and “in
order to prevent [the] concealment or destruction” of evidence (emphasis
added)). If there is no possibility that an arrestee could reach into the area
that law enforcement officers seek to search, both justifications for the
search-incident-to-arrest exception are absent and the rule does not apply. E.g., Preston v. United States, 376 U.S. 364, 367–368, 84 S.Ct. 881, 11
L.Ed.2d 777 (1964).
In Belton, we considered Chimel
‘s application to the automobile context. A lone police officer in that
case stopped a speeding car in which Belton was one of four occupants. While
asking for the driver’s license and registration, the officer smelled burnt
marijuana and observed an envelope on the car floor marked “Supergold”—a name he
associated with marijuana. Thus having probable cause to believe the occupants
had committed a drug offense, the officer ordered them out of the vehicle,
placed them under arrest, and patted them down. Without handcuffing the
arrestees,1 the officer “ ‘split them up into four separate areas of the
Thruway … so they would not be in physical touching area of each other’ ” and
searched the vehicle, including the pocket of a jacket on the backseat, in
which he found cocaine. 453 U.S., at 456, 101 S.Ct. 2860.
*340 The New York Court of Appeals found the search
unconstitutional, concluding that after the occupants were arrested the vehicle
and its contents were “safely within the exclusive custody and control of the
police.” State v. Belton, 50 N.Y.2d
447, 452, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407 N.E.2d 420, 423 (1980). The State asked this
Court to consider whether the exception recognized in Chimel permits an officer to search “a jacket found inside an
automobile while the automobile’s four occupants, all under arrest, are
standing unsecured around the vehicle.” Brief in No. 80–328, p. i. We granted
certiorari because “courts ha[d] found no workable definition of ‘the area
within the immediate control of the arrestee’ when that area arguably includes
the interior of an automobile.” 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860.
In its brief, the State argued that the Court of Appeals
erred in concluding that the jacket was under the officer’s exclusive control.
Focusing on the number of arrestees and their proximity to the vehicle, the State
asserted that it was reasonable for the officer to believe the arrestees could
have accessed the vehicle and its contents, making the search permissible under
Chimel. Brief in No. 80–328, at 7–8.
The United States, as amicus curiae in support of the State, argued for a more
permissive standard, but it maintained that any search incident to arrest must
be “ ‘substantially contemporaneous’ ” with the arrest—a requirement it deemed
“satisfied if the search occurs during the period in which the arrest is being
consummated and before the situation has so stabilized that it could be said
that the arrest was completed.” Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae in New York v.
Belton, O.T.1980, No. 80–328, p. 14. There was no suggestion by the parties
or amici that Chimel authorizes a vehicle search incident to arrest when there is
no realistic possibility that an arrestee could access his vehicle.
After considering these arguments, we held that when an
officer lawfully arrests “the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a
contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the *341 passenger compartment of the automobile”
and any containers therein. Belton,
453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860 (footnote omitted). That holding was based in
large part on our assumption “that articles inside the relatively narrow
compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally,
even if not inevitably, within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach.’ ”
The Arizona Supreme Court read our decision in Belton as merely delineating “the proper
scope of a search of the interior of an automobile” incident to an arrest, id., at 459, 101 S.Ct. 2860. That is,
when the passenger compartment is within an arrestee’s reaching distance, Belton supplies the generalization that
the entire compartment and any containers therein may be reached. On that view
of Belton, the state court concluded
that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable because Gant clearly could not
have accessed his car at the time of the search. It also found that no other
exception to the warrant requirement applied in this case.
Gant now urges us to adopt the reading of Belton followed by the Arizona Supreme
Despite the textual and evidentiary support for the Arizona
Supreme Court’s reading of Belton,
our opinion has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to
the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee
could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. This reading may be
attributable to Justice Brennan’s dissent in Belton, in which he characterized the Court’s holding as resting on
the “fiction … that the interior of a car is always within the immediate
control of an arrestee who has recently been in the car.” 453 U.S., at 466, 101
S.Ct. 2860. Under the majority’s approach, he argued, “the result would
presumably be the same even if [the officer] had handcuffed Belton and his companions in the patrol
car” before conducting the search. Id.,
at 468, 101 S.Ct. 2860.
*342 Since we decided Belton,
Courts of Appeals have given different answers to the question whether a
vehicle must be within an arrestee’s reach to justify a vehicle search incident
to arrest, but Justice Brennan’s reading of the Court’s opinion has
predominated. As Justice O’Connor observed, “lower court decisions seem now to
treat the ability to search a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent
occupant as a police entitlement rather than as an exception justified by the
twin rationales of Chimel.” Thornton, 541 U.S., at 624, 124 S.Ct.
2127 (opinion concurring in part). Justice SCALIA has similarly noted that,
although it is improbable that an arrestee could gain access to weapons stored
in his vehicle after he has been handcuffed and secured in the backseat of a
patrol car, cases allowing a search in “this precise factual scenario … are
legion.” Id., at 628, 124 S.Ct. 2127
(opinion concurring in judgment) (collecting cases). Indeed, some courts have
upheld searches *343 under Belton “even
when … the handcuffed arrestee has already left the scene.” 541 U.S., at 628,
124 S.Ct. 2127 (same).
Under this broad reading of Belton, a vehicle search would be authorized incident to every
arrest of a recent occupant notwithstanding that in most cases the vehicle’s
passenger compartment will not be within the arrestee’s reach at the time of
the search. To read Belton as
authorizing a vehicle search incident to every recent occupant’s arrest would
thus untether the rule from the justifications underlying the Chimel exception—a result clearly
incompatible with our statement in Belton that it “in no way alters the
fundamental principles established in the Chimel
case regarding the basic scope of searches incident to lawful custodial
arrests.” 453 U.S., at 460, n. 3, 101 S.Ct. 2860. Accordingly, we reject this
reading of Belton and hold 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.
Although it does not follow from Chimel, we also conclude that 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.” Thornton, 541 U.S., at 632,
124 S.Ct. 2127 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment). In many cases, as when a
recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no
reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence. See, e.g.,
*344 Atwater v. Lago Vista,
532 U.S. 318, 324, 121 S.Ct. 1536, 149 L.Ed.2d 549 (2001); Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 118, 119 S.Ct. 484, 142 L.Ed.2d 492
(1998). But in others, including Belton and Thornton, the offense of arrest
will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee’s
vehicle and any containers therein.
Neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of
discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search in this case. Unlike
in Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured
arrestees, the five officers in this case outnumbered the three arrestees, all
of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the
officers searched Gant’s car. Under those circumstances, Gant clearly was not
within reaching distance of his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary
basis for the search was also lacking in this case. Whereas Belton and Thornton
were arrested for drug offenses, Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended
license—an offense for which police could not expect to find evidence in the
passenger compartment of Gant’s car. Cf. Knowles, 525 U.S., at 118, 119 S.Ct.
484. Because police could not reasonably have believed either that Gant could
have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense
for which he was arrested might have been found therein, the search in this
case was unreasonable.
The State does not seriously disagree with the Arizona
Supreme Court’s conclusion that Gant could not have accessed his vehicle at the
time of the search, but it nevertheless asks us to uphold the search of his
vehicle under the broad reading of Belton
discussed above. The State argues that Belton
searches are reasonable regardless of the possibility of access in a given case
because that expansive rule correctly balances law enforcement interests,
including the interest in a bright-line rule, with an arrestee’s limited privacy
interest in his vehicle.
For several reasons, we reject the State’s argument. First,
the State seriously undervalues the privacy interests *345 at stake. Although we have recognized
that a motorist’s privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in
his home, see New York v. Class, 475
U.S. 106, 112–113, 106 S.Ct. 960, 89 L.Ed.2d 81 (1986), the former interest is
nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection, see Knowles, 525 U.S., at 117, 119 S.Ct.
484. It is particularly significant that Belton
searches authorize police officers to search not just the passenger compartment
but every purse, briefcase, or other container within that space. 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 in the 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.
At the same time as it undervalues these privacy concerns,
the State exaggerates the clarity that its reading of Belton provides. Courts that have read Belton expansively are at odds regarding how close in time to the
arrest and how proximate *346 to the
arrestee’s vehicle an officer’s first contact with the arrestee must be to
bring the encounter within Belton ‘s
purview6 and whether a search is reasonable when it commences or continues
after the arrestee has been removed from the scene. THE RULE HAS THUS generated
a great deal of uncertainty, particularly for a rule touted as providing a
“bright line.” See 3 LaFave, § 7.1©, at 514–524.
Contrary to the State’s suggestion, a broad reading of Belton is also unnecessary to protect law
enforcement safety and evidentiary interests. Under our view, Belton and Thornton permit an officer to conduct a vehicle search when an
arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or it is reasonable to
believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Other
established exceptions to the warrant requirement authorize a vehicle search
under additional circumstances when safety or evidentiary concerns demand. For
instance, Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S.
1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983), permits an officer to search a
vehicle’s passenger compartment when he has reasonable suspicion that an
individual, whether or not the arrestee, is “dangerous” and might access the
vehicle *347 to “gain immediate control
of weapons.” Id., at 1049, 103 S.Ct.
3469 (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S.
1, 21, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968)). If there is probable cause to
believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity, United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 820–821, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72
L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), authorizes a search of any area of the vehicle in which the
evidence might be found. Unlike the searches permitted by Justice SCALIA’s
opinion concurring in the judgment in Thornton,
which we conclude today are reasonable for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, Ross allows searches for evidence
relevant to offenses other than the offense of arrest, and the scope of the
search authorized is broader. Finally, there may be still other circumstances
in which safety or evidentiary interests would justify a search. Cf. Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 334, 110
S.Ct. 1093, 108 L.Ed.2d 276 (1990) (holding that, incident to arrest, an
officer may conduct a limited protective sweep of those areas of a house in
which he reasonably suspects a dangerous person may be hiding).
These exceptions together ensure that officers may search a
vehicle when genuine safety or evidentiary concerns encountered during the
arrest of a vehicle’s recent occupant justify a search. Construing Belton broadly to allow vehicle searches
incident to any arrest would serve no purpose except to provide a police
entitlement, and it is anathema to the Fourth Amendment to permit a warrantless
search on that basis. For these reasons, we are unpersuaded by the State’s
arguments that a broad reading of Belton
would meaningfully further law enforcement interests and justify a substantial
intrusion on individuals’ privacy.
Our dissenting colleagues argue that the doctrine of stare decisis requires adherence to a
broad reading of Belton even though
the justifications for searching a vehicle incident to arrest are in most cases
absent. The doctrine of stare decisis is of course “essential to the respect
accorded to the judgments of the Court and to the stability of the law,” but it
does not compel us to follow a past decision when its rationale no longer
withstands “careful analysis.” Lawrence
v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 577, 123 S.Ct. 2472, 156 L.Ed.2d 508 (2003).
We have never relied on stare
decisis to justify the continuance of an unconstitutional police practice.
And we would be particularly loath to uphold an unconstitutional result in a
case that is so easily distinguished from the decisions that arguably compel
it. The safety and evidentiary interests that supported the search in Belton simply are not present in this
case. Indeed, it is hard to imagine two cases that are factually more distinct,
as Belton involved one officer
confronted by four unsecured arrestees suspected of committing a drug offense
and this case involves several officers confronted with a securely detained
arrestee apprehended for driving with a suspended license. This case is also
distinguishable from Thornton, in
which the petitioner was *349 arrested
for a drug offense. It is thus unsurprising that Members of this Court who
concurred in the judgments in Belton
and Thornton also concur in the
decision in this case.
We do not agree with the contention in Justice ALITO’s
dissent (hereinafter dissent) that consideration of police reliance interests
requires a different result. 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,11 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 constitutional right to the
security of their private effects violated as a result. The fact that the law
enforcement community may view the State’s version of the Belton rule as an entitlement does not establish the sort of
reliance interest that could outweigh the countervailing interest that all
individuals share in having their constitutional rights fully protected. If it
is clear that a practice is unlawful, individuals’ interest in its
discontinuance clearly outweighs any law enforcement “entitlement” to its
persistence. Cf. Mincey v. Arizona,
437 U.S. 385, 393, 98 S.Ct. 2408, 57 L.Ed.2d 290 (1978) (“[T]he mere fact that
law enforcement may be made more efficient can never by itself justify
disregard of the Fourth Amendment”). The dissent’s reference in this regard to
the reliance interests cited in Dickerson
v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 120 S.Ct. 2326, 147 L.Ed.2d 405 (2000), is
misplaced. See post, at 1728. In observing *350
that “Miranda has become
embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become
part of our national culture,” 530 U.S., at 443, 120 S.Ct. 2326, the Court was
referring not to police reliance on a rule requiring them to provide warnings
but to the broader societal reliance on that individual right.
The dissent also ignores the checkered history of the
search-incident-to-arrest exception. Police authority to search the place in
which a lawful arrest is made was broadly asserted in Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192, 48 S.Ct. 74, 72 L.Ed. 231
(1927), and limited a few years later in Go–Bart
Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 51 S.Ct. 153, 75 L.Ed. 374
(1931), and United States v. Lefkowitz,
285 U.S. 452, 52 S.Ct. 420, 76 L.Ed. 877 (1932). The limiting views expressed
in Go–Bart and Lefkowitz were in turn abandoned in Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145, 67 S.Ct. 1098, 91 L.Ed. 1399
(1947), which upheld a search of a four-room apartment incident to the
occupant’s arrest. Only a year later the Court in Trupiano v. United States, 334 U.S. 699, 708, 68 S.Ct. 1229, 92
L.Ed. 1663 (1948), retreated from that holding, noting that the
search-incident-to-arrest exception is “a strictly limited” one that must be
justified by “something more in the way of necessity than merely a lawful
arrest.” And just two years after that, in United
States v. Rabinowitz, 339 U.S. 56, 70 S.Ct. 430, 94 L.Ed. 653 (1950), the
Court again reversed course and upheld the search of an entire apartment.
Finally, our opinion in Chimel
overruled Rabinowitz and what
remained of Harris and established the present boundaries of the
search-incident-to-arrest exception. Notably, none of the dissenters in Chimel or the cases that preceded it
argued that law enforcement reliance interests outweighed the interest in
protecting individual constitutional rights so as to warrant fidelity to an
The experience of the 28 years since we decided Belton has
shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision
is unfounded. We now know that articles inside the passenger compartment are
rarely “within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach,’ ” *351 453 U.S.,
at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860, and blind adherence to Belton ‘s faulty assumption
would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches. The doctrine of stare decisis
does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations.
Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s
arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger
compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the
vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications
are absent, a search of an arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless
police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant
requirement applies. The Arizona Supreme Court correctly held that this case
involved an unreasonable search. Accordingly, the judgment of the State Supreme
Court is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
Justice SCALIA, concurring.
To determine what is an “unreasonable” search within the
meaning of the Fourth Amendment, we look first to the historical practices the
Framers sought to preserve; if those provide inadequate guidance, we apply
traditional standards of reasonableness. See Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164, ––––, 128 S.Ct. 1598, 1602–04, 170
L.Ed.2d 559 (2008). Since the historical scope of officers’ authority to search
vehicles incident to arrest is uncertain, see Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 629–631, 124 S.Ct. 2127,
158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004) (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment), traditional
standards of reasonableness govern. It is abundantly clear that those standards
do not justify what I take to be the rule set forth in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768
(1981), and Thornton: that arresting
officers may always search an arrestee’s vehicle in order to protect themselves
from hidden weapons. When an arrest is made in connection with a roadside stop,
police virtually always have a less intrusive and more effective means of
ensuring their safety—and a means that is virtually *352 always employed: ordering the arrestee away
from the vehicle, patting him down in the open, handcuffing him, and placing
him in the squad car.
Law enforcement officers face a risk of being shot whenever
they pull a car over. But that risk is at its height at the time of the initial
confrontation; and it is not at all reduced
by allowing a search of the stopped vehicle after the driver has been arrested
and placed in the squad car. I observed in Thornton
that the government had failed to provide a single instance in which a formerly
restrained arrestee escaped to retrieve a weapon from his own vehicle, 541
U.S., at 626, 124 S.Ct. 2127; Arizona and its amici have not remedied that
significant deficiency in the present case.
It must be borne in mind that we are speaking here only of a
rule automatically permitting a search when the driver or an occupant is
arrested. Where no arrest is made, we have held that officers may search the
car if they reasonably believe “the suspect is dangerous and … may gain
immediate control of weapons.” Michigan
v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983). In
the no-arrest case, the possibility of access to weapons in the vehicle always
exists, since the driver or passenger will be allowed to return to the vehicle
when the interrogation is completed. The rule of Michigan v. Long is not at
Justice STEVENS acknowledges that an officer-safety
rationale cannot justify all vehicle searches incident to arrest, but asserts
that that is not the rule Belton and Thornton adopted. (As described above, I
read those cases differently). Justice STEVENS would therefore retain the
application of Chimel v. California,
395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), in the car-search context
but would apply in the future what he believes our cases held in the past: that
officers making a roadside stop may search the vehicle so long as the “arrestee
is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the
search.” Ante, at 1723. I believe
that this *353 standard fails to provide
the needed guidance to arresting officers and also leaves much room for
manipulation, inviting officers to leave the scene unsecured (at least where
dangerous suspects are not involved) in order to conduct a vehicle search. In
my view we should simply abandon the Belton–Thornton
charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehicle
search incident to arrest is ipso facto
“reasonable” only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for
which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable
cause to believe occurred. Because respondent was arrested for driving without
a license (a crime for which no evidence could be expected to be found in the
vehicle), I would hold in the present case that the search was unlawful.
Justice ALITO insists that the Court must demand a good
reason for abandoning prior precedent. That is true enough, but it seems to me
ample reason that the precedent was badly reasoned and produces erroneous (in
this case unconstitutional) results. See Payne
v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827, 111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720 (1991). We
should recognize Belton ‘s fanciful reliance upon officer safety for what it
was: “a return to the broader sort of [evidence-gathering] search incident to
arrest that we allowed before Chimel.”
Thornton, supra, at 631, 124 S.Ct. 2127 (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment;
Justice ALITO argues that there is no reason to adopt a rule
limiting automobile-arrest searches to those cases where the search’s object is
evidence of the crime of arrest. Post,
at 1731 (dissenting opinion). I disagree. This formulation of officers’
authority both preserves the outcomes of our prior cases and tethers the scope
and rationale of the doctrine to the triggering event. Belton, by contrast, allowed searches precisely when its
exigency-based rationale was least applicable: The fact of the arrest in the
automobile context makes searches on exigency grounds less reasonable, not more.
I also disagree with Justice ALITO’s conclusory
*354 assertion that this standard will be difficult to administer in
practice, post, at 1729; the ease of its application in this case would suggest
No other Justice, however, shares my view that application
of Chimel in this context should be
entirely abandoned. It seems to me unacceptable for the Court to come forth
with a 4–to–1–to–4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain. I am
therefore confronted with the choice of either leaving the current
understanding of Belton and Thornton in effect, or acceding to what
seems to me the artificial narrowing of those cases adopted by Justice STEVENS.
The latter, as I have said, does not provide the degree of certainty I think
desirable in this field; but the former opens the field to what I think are
plainly unconstitutional searches—which is the greater evil. I therefore join
the opinion of the Court.
Justice BREYER, dissenting.
I agree with Justice ALITO that New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768
(1981), is best read as setting forth a bright-line rule that permits a
warrantless search of the passenger compartment of an automobile incident to
the lawful arrest of an occupant—regardless of the danger the arrested individual
in fact poses. I also agree with Justice STEVENS, however, that the rule can
produce results divorced from its underlying Fourth Amendment rationale.
Compare Belton, supra, with Chimel v.
California, 395 U.S. 752, 764, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969)
(explaining that the rule allowing contemporaneous searches is justified by the
need to prevent harm to a police officer or destruction of evidence of the
crime). For that reason I would look for a better rule—were the question before
us one of first impression.
The matter, however, is not one of first impression, and
that fact makes a substantial difference. The Belton rule has been followed not only by this Court in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615,
124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004), but also by numerous other courts.
Principles of stare decisis must
apply, and *355 those who wish this
Court to change a well-established legal precedent—where, as here, there has
been considerable reliance on the legal rule in question—bear a heavy burden.
Cf. Leegin Creative Leather Products,
Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877, ––––, 127 S.Ct. 2705, 2719–21, 168
L.Ed.2d 623 (2007) (BREYER, J., dissenting). I have not found that burden met.
Nor do I believe that the other considerations ordinarily relevant when
determining whether to overrule a case are satisfied. I consequently join
Justice ALITO’s dissenting opinion with the exception of Part II–E.
Justice ALITO, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice
KENNEDY join, and with whom Justice BREYER joins except as to Part II–E,
Twenty-eight years ago, in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d
768 (1981), this Court held that “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial
arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident
of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.” (Footnote
omitted.) Five years ago, in Thornton v.
United States, 541 U.S. 615, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004)—a case
involving a situation not materially distinguishable from the situation
here—the Court not only reaffirmed but extended the holding of Belton, making it applicable to recent
occupants. Today’s decision effectively overrules those important decisions,
even though respondent Gant has not asked us to do so.
To take the place of the overruled precedents, the Court
adopts a new two-part rule under which a police officer who arrests a vehicle
occupant or recent occupant may search the passenger compartment if (1) the
arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the search
or (2) the officer has reason to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of
the offense of arrest. Ante, at 1723
– 1724. The first part of this new rule may endanger arresting officers and is
truly endorsed by only four Justices; Justice SCALIA joins solely for the
purpose of avoiding a “4–to–1–to 4 opinion.”
*356 Ante, at 1725 (concurring
opinion). The second part of the new rule is taken from Justice SCALIA’s
separate opinion in Thornton without
any independent explanation of its origin or justification and is virtually
certain to confuse law enforcement officers and judges for some time to come.
The Court’s decision will cause the suppression of evidence gathered in many
searches carried out in good-faith reliance on well-settled case law, and
although the Court purports to base its analysis on the landmark decision in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969),
the Court’s reasoning undermines Chimel.
I would follow Belton, and I
therefore respectfully dissent.
Although the Court refuses to acknowledge that it is
overruling Belton and Thornton, there can be no doubt that it
In Belton, an
officer on the New York Thruway removed the occupants from a car and placed
them under arrest but did not handcuff them. See 453 U.S., at 456, 101 S.Ct.
2860; Brief for Petitioner in New York v.
Belton, O.T.1980, No. 80–328, p. 3. The officer then searched a jacket on
the car’s back seat and found drugs. 453 U.S., at 455, 101 S.Ct. 2860. By a
divided vote, the New York Court of Appeals held that the search of the jacket
violated Chimel, in which this Court
held that an arresting officer may search the area within an arrestee’s
immediate control. See State v. Belton,
50 N.Y.2d 447, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407 N.E.2d 420 (1980). The judges of the New
York Court of Appeals disagreed on the factual question whether the Belton arrestees could have gained
access to the car. The majority thought that they could not have done so, id., at 452, n. 2, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407
N.E.2d 420, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407 N.E.2d, at 423, n. 2, but the dissent thought
that this was a real possibility. Id.,
at 453, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407 N.E.2d, at 424 (opinion of Gabrielli, J.).
Viewing this disagreement about the application of the Chimel rule as illustrative of a
persistent and important problem, the Belton
Court concluded that “ ‘[a] single familiar *357 standard’ ” was “ ‘essential to guide police
officers’ ” who make roadside arrests. 453 U.S., at 458, 101 S.Ct. 2860
(quoting Dunaway v. New York, 442
U.S. 200, 213–214, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 60 L.Ed.2d 824 (1979)). The Court
acknowledged that articles in the passenger compartment of a car are not always
within an arrestee’s reach, but “[i]n order to establish the workable rule this
category of cases requires,” the Court adopted a rule that categorically
permits the search of a car’s passenger compartment incident to the lawful
arrest of an occupant. 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860.
The precise holding in Belton
could not be clearer. The Court stated unequivocally: “[W]e hold that when a
policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile,
he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger
compartment of that automobile.” Ibid.
Despite this explicit statement, the opinion of the Court in
the present case curiously suggests that Belton
may reasonably be read as adopting a holding that is narrower than the one
explicitly set out in the Belton
opinion, namely, that an officer arresting a vehicle occupant may search the
passenger compartment “when the
passenger compartment is within an arrestee’s reaching distance.” Ante, at 1717 – 1718 (emphasis in
original). According to the Court, the broader reading of Belton that has gained wide acceptance “may be attributable to
Justice Brennan’s dissent.” Ante, at
Contrary to the Court’s suggestion, however, Justice
Brennan’s Belton dissent did not
mischaracterize the Court’s holding in that case or cause that holding to be
misinterpreted. As noted, the Belton
Court explicitly stated precisely what it held. In Thornton, the Court recognized the scope of Belton ‘s holding. See 541 U.S., at 620, 124 S.Ct. 2127. So did
Justice SCALIA’s separate opinion. See id., at 625, 124 S.Ct. 2127 (opinion
concurring in judgment) (“In [Belton]
we set forth a bright-line rule for arrests of automobile occupants, holding
that … a search of the whole [passenger] compartment is justified in every
case”). So does Justice SCALIA’s opinion in the present *358 case. See ante, at 1724 (Belton and Thornton held
that “arresting officers may always search an arrestee’s vehicle in order to
protect themselves from hidden weapons”). This “bright-line rule” has now been
Because the Court has substantially overruled Belton and Thornton, the Court must explain why its departure from the usual
rule of stare decisis is justified. I
recognize that stare decisis is not an “inexorable command,” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 828,
111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720 (1991), and applies less rigidly in
constitutional cases, Glidden Co. v.
Zdanok, 370 U.S. 530, 543, 82 S.Ct. 1459, 8 L.Ed.2d 671 (1962) (plurality
opinion). But the Court has said that a constitutional precedent should be
followed unless there is a “ ‘special justification’ ” for its abandonment. Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S.
428, 443, 120 S.Ct. 2326, 147 L.Ed.2d 405 (2000). Relevant factors identified
in prior cases include whether the precedent has engendered reliance, id., at 442, 120 S.Ct. 2326, whether
there has been an important change in circumstances in the outside world, Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230, 244,
126 S.Ct. 2479, 165 L.Ed.2d 482 (2006) (plurality opinion); Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co.,
285 U.S. 393, 412, 52 S.Ct. 443, 76 L.Ed. 815 (1932) (Brandeis, J.,
dissenting), whether the precedent has proved to be unworkable, Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267, 306,
124 S.Ct. 1769, 158 L.Ed.2d 546 (2004) (plurality opinion) (citing Payne, supra, at 827, 111 S.Ct. 2597), whether the precedent has been
undermined by later decisions, see, e.g., Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491
U.S. 164, 173–174, 109 S.Ct. 2363, 105 L.Ed.2d 132 (1989), and whether the
decision was badly reasoned. Vieth,
supra, at 306, 124 S.Ct. 1769 (plurality opinion). These factors weigh in favor
of retaining the rule established in Belton.
reliance is most important in “cases involving property and contract rights,” Payne, supra, at 828, 111 S.Ct. 2597, the Court has recognized that
reliance by law enforcement officers is also entitled to weight. In Dickerson, the Court held that
principles of stare decisis
“weigh[ed]” heavily *359 against
overruling Miranda v. Arizona, 384
U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), because the Miranda rule had become “embedded in
routine police practice.” 530 U.S., at 443, 120 S.Ct. 2326.
If there was reliance in Dickerson,
there certainly is substantial reliance here. The Belton rule has been taught to police officers for more than a
quarter century. Many searches—almost certainly including more than a few that
figure in cases now on appeal—were conducted in scrupulous reliance on that
precedent. It is likely that, on the very day when this opinion is announced,
numerous vehicle searches will be conducted in good faith by police officers
who were taught the Belton rule.
The opinion of the Court recognizes that “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.” Ante, at 1722 – 1723. But for the Court, this seemingly counts for
nothing. The Court states that “[w]e have never relied on stare decisis to justify the continuance of an unconstitutional
police practice,” ante, at 1722, but of course the Court routinely relies on
decisions sustaining the constitutionality of police practices without doing
what the Court has done here—sua sponte
considering whether those decisions should be overruled. And the Court cites no
authority for the proposition that stare
decisis may be disregarded or provides only lesser protection when the
precedent that is challenged is one that sustained the constitutionality of a
law enforcement practice.
The Court also errs in arguing that the reliance interest
that was given heavy weight in Dickerson
was not “police reliance on a rule requiring them to provide warnings but to
the broader societal reliance on that individual right.” Ante, at 1723. The Dickerson
opinion makes no reference to “societal reliance,” and petitioner in that case
contended that there had been reliance on Miranda
because, among other things, “[f]or nearly thirty-five years, Miranda ‘s requirements ha[d] shaped law
enforcement training [and] police *360
conduct.” See Brief for Petitioner in Dickerson
v. United States, O.T.1999, No. 99–5525, p. 33.
Changed circumstances. Abandonment of the Belton rule cannot be justified on the ground that the dangers
surrounding the arrest of a vehicle occupant are different today than they were
28 years ago. The Court claims that “[w]e now know that articles inside the
passenger compartment are rarely ‘within “the area into which an arrestee might
reach,” ’ ” ante, at 1723 – 1724, but
surely it was well known in 1981 that a person who is taken from a vehicle,
handcuffed, and placed in the back of a patrol car is unlikely to make it back
into his own car to retrieve a weapon or destroy evidence.
Workability. The Belton rule has not proved to be
unworkable. On the contrary, the rule was adopted for the express purpose of
providing a test that would be relatively easy for police officers and judges
to apply. The Court correctly notes that even the Belton rule is not perfectly clear in all situations. Specifically,
it is sometimes debatable whether a search is or is not contemporaneous with an
arrest, ante, at 1716 – 1718, but
that problem is small in comparison with the problems that the Court’s new
two-part rule will produce.
The first part of the Court’s new rule—which permits the
search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment if it is within an arrestee’s reach
at the time of the search—reintroduces the same sort of case-by-case, fact-specific
decisionmaking that the Belton rule
was adopted to avoid. As the situation in Belton
illustrated, there are cases in which it is unclear whether an arrestee could
retrieve a weapon or evidence in the passenger compartment of a car.
Even more serious problems will also result from the second
part of the Court’s new rule, which requires officers *361 making roadside arrests to determine
whether there is reason to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime
of arrest. What this rule permits in a variety of situations is entirely
Consistency with later
cases. The Belton bright-line
rule has not been undermined by subsequent cases. On the contrary, that rule
was reaffirmed and extended just five years ago in Thornton.
Bad reasoning. The
Court is harshly critical of Belton ‘s
reasoning, but the problem that the Court perceives cannot be remedied simply
by overruling Belton. Belton represented only a modest—and
quite defensible—extension of Chimel,
as I understand that decision.
Prior to Chimel,
the Court’s precedents permitted an arresting officer to search the area within
an arrestee’s “possession” and “control” for the purpose of gathering evidence.
See 395 U.S., at 759–760, 89 S.Ct. 2034. Based on this “abstract doctrine,” id., at 760, n. 4, 89 S.Ct. 2034, the
Court had sustained searches that extended far beyond an arrestee’s grabbing
area. See United States v. Rabinowitz,
339 U.S. 56, 70 S.Ct. 430, 94 L.Ed. 653 (1950) (search of entire office); Harris v. United States, 331 U.S. 145,
67 S.Ct. 1098, 91 L.Ed. 1399 (1947) (search of entire apartment).
The Chimel Court,
in an opinion written by Justice Stewart, overruled these cases. Concluding
that there are only two justifications for a warrantless search incident to
arrest—officer safety and the preservation of evidence—the Court stated that
such a search must be confined to “the arrestee’s person” and “the area from
within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.”
395 U.S., at 762–763, 89 S.Ct. 2034.
did not say whether “the area from within which [an arrestee] might gain
possession of a weapon or destructible evidence” is to be measured at the time
of *362 the arrest or at the time of the
search, but unless the Chimel rule
was meant to be a specialty rule, applicable to only a few unusual cases, the
Court must have intended for this area to be measured at the time of arrest.
This is so because the Court can hardly have failed to
appreciate the following two facts. First, in the great majority of cases, an
officer making an arrest is able to handcuff the arrestee and remove him to a
secure place before conducting a search incident to the arrest. See ante, at 1719, n. 4 (stating that it is
“the rare case” in which an arresting officer cannot secure an arrestee before
conducting a search). Second, because it is safer for an arresting officer to
secure an arrestee before searching, it is likely that this is what arresting
officers do in the great majority of cases. (And it appears, not surprisingly,
that this is in fact the prevailing practice.1) Thus, if the area within an
arrestee’s reach were assessed, not at the time of arrest, but at the time of
the search, the Chimel rule would
rarely come into play.
Moreover, if the applicability of the Chimel rule turned on whether an arresting officer chooses to
secure an arrestee prior to conducting a search, rather than searching first
and securing the arrestee later, the rule would “create a perverse incentive
for an arresting officer to prolong the period during which the arrestee is
kept in an area where he could pose a danger to the officer.” United States v. Abdul–Saboor, 85 F.3d
664, 669 (C.A.D.C.1996). If this is the law, the D.C. Circuit observed, “the
law would truly be, as Mr. Bumble said, ‘a ass.’ ” Ibid. See also United States
v. Tejada, 524 F.3d 809, 812 (C.A.7 2008) (“[I]f the police could lawfully
have searched the defendant’s grabbing radius at the moment of arrest, he has
no legitimate complaint if, the better to protect themselves from him, they
first put him outside that radius”).
I do not think that this is what the Chimel Court intended. Handcuffs were in use in 1969. The ability
of arresting officers *363 to secure
arrestees before conducting a search—and their incentive to do so—are facts
that can hardly have escaped the Court’s attention. I therefore believe that
the Chimel Court intended that its
new rule apply in cases in which the arrestee is handcuffed before the search
The Belton Court,
in my view, proceeded on the basis of this interpretation of Chimel. Again speaking through Justice
Stewart, the Belton Court reasoned
that articles in the passenger compartment of a car are “generally, even if not
inevitably” within an arrestee’s reach. 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860. This
is undoubtedly true at the time of the arrest of a person who is seated in a
car but plainly not true when the person has been removed from the car and
placed in handcuffs. Accordingly, the Belton
Court must have proceeded on the assumption that the Chimel rule was to be applied at the time of arrest. And that is
why the Belton Court was able to say