Scope of Search During a Stop
Scope of a Search Incident to Arrest: In Chimel, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior holding that "'the scope of a search must be 'strictly tied to and justified by' the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible.'" 395 U.S. at 762 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968)) (alterations in original).
Relying on this principle, the Court then held that, incident to an arrest, a police officer may search the arrestee and the area within his immediate control in order to ensure the absence of weapons and prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence. Id. at 762-63.
The Court in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768, 101 S. Ct. 2860 (1981), applied Chimel in the context of a vehicle occupant's arrest. the Court held that when a police officer lawfully arrests such a person, the officer may, "as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest," search the passenger compartment and examine the contents of any open or closed containers found therein. 453 U.S. at 460-61.
A "container" includes "luggage, boxes, bags, clothing, and the like." Id. at 460, n.4 (emphasis added). Notably, the Court stated that its decision "in no way alters the fundamental principles established in the Chimel case regarding the basic scope of searches incident to lawful custodial arrests." Id. at 460, n.3.
In Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 297, 143 L. Ed. 2d 408, 119 S. Ct. 1297 (1999), the Court addressed "whether police officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they search a passenger's personal belongings inside an automobile that they have probable cause to believe contains contraband."
In that case, a police officer stopped a car for speeding and having a faulty brake light. Houghton, 526 U.S. at 297. While speaking with the driver, the officer noticed a syringe sticking out of the driver's shirt pocket, which the driver admitted he used to take illegal drugs. Id. at 298.
Upon request, the driver and his passengers, including Houghton, exited the car, and the officer searched it. Id. During the search, the officer found Houghton's purse, opened it, and discovered methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Id.