Arizona v. Gant – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the defendant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car before officers searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket pocket.

The police made a pretextual stop for driving with a suspended license. After Gant was arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a patrol car, the police conducted a warrantless search of his car. They found drugs in the passenger compartment.

The state sought to uphold the validity of the search on the ground that it was a search incident to an arrest. In concluding the search was unlawful, the court held that the "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." (Gant, supra, 129 S.Ct. at p. 1723.)

The Supreme Court upheld the state court's conclusion that the search was unreasonable.

The Supreme Court held that law enforcement 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 it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

The Supreme Court upheld the suppression of cocaine found in the search of a defendant's car while he was "handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car" after his arrest for driving with a suspended license. 129 S. Ct. at 1714.

The Court reasoned that holding such a search to be reasonable was inconsistent with the purposes for allowing a search incident to arrest; namely, "protecting arresting officers and safeguarding any evidence of the offense of arrest that an arrestee might conceal or destroy." Id. at 1716

The Court concluded that police were authorized "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." Id. at 1719.

The United States Supreme Court revised the predominant understanding of the permissible parameters of the "search incident to lawful arrest" doctrine in automobile search cases under the Fourth Amendment.

The defendant in Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was placed in handcuffs and locked in the back seat of a police vehicle. Officers then searched his car. They recovered a gun and a bag of cocaine. Defendant was charged with two drug offenses and moved to suppress the evidence recovered from his car. He argued that suppression was proper because he posed no threat to the officers while handcuffed and because he was arrested for a traffic offense for which no evidence would likely be found in his vehicle. The officer who conducted the search testified at the suppression hearing that the search was proper because "the law says we can do it." (556 US at 337.)

Departing from previous authority permitting the search of a vehicle incident to arrest even when the arrestee has been removed from the vehicle and secured, the Court held the police may "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." (Arizona v. Gant, supra, 173 L.Ed.2d at p. 496.)

The Court added: "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.' " (Ibid.)

The Supreme Court ruled 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." Gant, supra, 129 SCt at 1719 (III).

Gant does not change the black letter law establishing that police officers are authorized to conduct a search of a defendant or any instrument which may have been used to commit the crime that is found within the defendant's immediate presence or within the passenger compartment of a vehicle when the search is incident to arrest. See id. at 1718-1721 (III)- (IV). In Gant, the Supreme Court rejected a broad interpretation of Belton and held 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 Court added that, although it does not follow from Chimel v. California 395 U.S. 752 (89 SCt 2034, 23 LE2d 685) (1969), a search incident to a lawful arrest is also justified "when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle."

The Court thus reaffirmed that a search incident to arrest is limited by its two justifications -- officer safety and evidence preservation.

"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."

The Court determined that the practice of conducting the search incident to a lawful arrest after the car's occupant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car exceeded the boundaries prescribed by Chimel.

The Court concluded:

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 decision was an attempt to clarify the holding in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, (1981).

Belton held that when an officer lawfully arrests "the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the automobile" and any containers there. (Id. at p. 460.) Under a broad reading of Belton, a vehicle search would be an authorized incident to every arrest of a recent occupant even though in most cases the vehicle's passenger compartment will not be within the arrestee's reach at the time of the search.

In Gant, the court clarified Belton and held that law enforcement search of a vehicle incident to an occupant's recent arrest would only be authorized if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. (Ibid.) The Supreme Court in Gant also concluded that the circumstances unique to a vehicle context would justify a search when it would be reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle. (Ibid.)

The Supreme Court further distinguished Belton. In Belton, a single officer was confronted with four unsecured arrestees. In Gant, five officers outnumbered three arrestees, all of whom had been handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars before the officers searched Gant's car. Gant was not within reaching distance of his car. In addition, Belton was arrested for a drug offense, Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. The United States Supreme Court disapproved a broad reading of Belton and clarified the application of Thornton v. United States (2004) 541 U.S. 615.

The majority in Gant explained, "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;" however, consistent with Thornton, "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." (Gant, supra, 129 S.Ct. at p. 1714.)

As explained previously, searches conducted without a warrant are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment except for a few well-delineated exceptions. (Gant, supra, 129 S.Ct. at p. 1716.) One of these exceptions is a search incident to a lawful arrest, which must be based on concerns for officer safety and evidence preservation. (Ibid.)