Supreme Court Cases on Arrest Based on Evidence Found in the Car

In Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332, the defendant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 335.) The high court found it unreasonable to believe that evidence of this crime might be found in his car. (Id. at p. 343.) The court explained: "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." (Ibid.) By way of example, the court cited Atwater v. Lago Vista (2001) 532 U.S. 318, in which the petitioner was arrested for a misdemeanor seatbelt violation, and Knowles v. Iowa (1998) 525 U.S. 113, in which the petitioner was stopped for speeding. (Gant, supra, at pp. 343-344 129 S.Ct. at p. 1719.) The court reasoned that in other cases, "including New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454 and Thornton v. United States (2004) 541 U.S. 615, the offense of arrest will supply a basis for searching the passenger compartment of an arrestee's vehicle and any containers therein." (Gant, supra, at p. 344; see People v. Osborne, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 1065.) In Belton, the crime of arrest was unlawful possession of marijuana; in Thornton, the defendant was arrested after an officer found drugs in his pocket. (Belton, supra, 453 U.S. at p. 456; Thornton v. United States, supra, 541 U.S. at p. 618.) Gant concluded that, unlike in Belton and Thornton, in which the defendants "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." (Gant, supra, at p. 344 129 S.Ct. at p. 1719.) As explained above, in Arizona v. Gant, Tucson police officers knocked on the front door of a home that an anonymous tipster stated was being used to sell drugs. Gant answered the door, identified himself, and stated he expected the home owner to return later. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129.) The officers conducted a background check and learned that Gant's driver's license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Officers returned to the home and arrested a man and a woman. Gant drove up in a car. Shining their flashlights into the car, the officers recognized Gant. Gant parked the car at the end of the driveway, exited it, and closed the car door. (Id. at p. 129 S.Ct. at p. 1715.) The officers called out to Gant, who was about 30 feet away. When the officers met Gant, they were all 10-12 feet from Gant's car. Gant was arrested and handcuffed. When other officers arrived, Gant was locked in a patrol car. Two officers searched Gant's car, discovering a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket in the backseat. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129 S.) The Supreme Court in Chimel v. California (1969) 395 U.S. 752held that a search incident to arrest may only include the arrestee's person and the area within the arrestee's immediate control. The purpose of the rule is to ensure officer safety and preservation of evidence. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129.) In New York v. Belton (1981) 453 U.S. 454 (Belton), the Supreme Court considered Chimel's application in the context of automobile stops. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129 S.Ct. at p. 1716.) Belton held that when an officer lawfully arrests an occupant of a vehicle, as a contemporaneous incident of the arrest, the officer may search the passenger compartment of the vehicle as well as any containers therein. (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129 S.Ct. at p. 1717.) Gant held that the broad reading of Belton, that a vehicle search is authorized incident to every arrest of a recent occupant notwithstanding the passenger compartment will not be within the arrestee's reach at the time of the search, must be rejected. Gant 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." (Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at p. 129 S.Ct. at p. 1719.) Gant further held that although it does not follow from Chimel, "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.'" (Id. at p. 129 S.Ct. at p. 1719.)