Briefing Room


How Arizona v. Gant changed procedures for searching arrestee’s vehicles

August 5, 2009 | Faculty

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a 5-4 opinion that revised the long-standing Belton rule, the effect of which will be to change the procedures police officers may use when searching the vehicles of persons whom they arrest. Police no longer have the automatic right to conduct a warrantless search of an arrestee’s car if the arrested person is secured and cannot access the vehicle. Professor Joshua Dressler, an expert in criminal law and criminal procedure, discusses the important ruling.

Please give a brief synopsis of the facts in Arizona v. Gant.

Rodney Gant was validly arrested for driving his car on a suspended license. He was handcuffed and placed inside the police patrol car. The officers then searched his car, although they had no reason to believe they would find any criminal evidence in it. But, as it turned out, they found cocaine in Gant’s jacket pocket, which was inside the car.

Why did this case make it to the Supreme Court?


Various members of the Supreme Court had recently begun to question their Fourth Amendment jurisprudence relating to warrantless searches of automobiles, when they are conducted as an incident to a lawful arrest of a recent occupant of the car.

The general rule is that warrantless searches are unconstitutional because it is considered better for a judge, rather than the police, to decide if there is probable cause for the search. One exception to the “warrant requirement” rule has long been that an arrest creates an emergency that justifies a limited warrantless search by the police of the arrestee and the “grabbing area” nearby, in order to find any weapons the arrestee might use on the police and/or any evidence relating to the crime that the arrestee might destroy.  That rule is uncontroversial.

But, then the Court created a special rule relating to the arrest of automobile occupants.  They created a “bright-line” rule in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), which provides that the police may always search the passenger compartment of the vehicle, and all of the containers found inside, for weapons and evidence. In other words, the inside of the car is considered within the “grabbing area” of the arrestee no matter what the specific facts.

Then, in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004), the Court extended the Belton rule to a recent occupant of a car who was arrested. But, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg used the case to express their doubts about the wisdom of the Belton rule, as did then-Justice O’Connor, so the issue was ripe for re-consideration when Gant came along.

What should I know about the Court’s ruling?

The Court revised the Belton rule. They claimed they were not overruling it, but in reality they were. Now, the Court says 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.” In short, the Court is saying, as it should have, that automobiles are no different than homes. That is, the police should be allowed to protect themselves from weapons and prevent the destruction of evidence, but they only need to search the arrestee and the places where he can reach — in a home or in a car or anywhere else for that matter. And, just as the “grabbing area” in a home varies depending on the facts (what the room looks like, whether the arrestee is handcuffed or not, how many arrestees and officers there are, etc.), the same is so with cars. So, Gant makes sense in this regard.

But, the Court didn’t stop there. It announced a new rule, due to “circumstances unique to the automobile context,” namely: Even if the arrestee no longer has access to the interior of the car — like Gant, who was handcuffed in the police vehicle — the police may still conduct a warrantless search “when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Since there was no reason here to believe there was evidence in the car of the crime of driving on a suspended license, Gant won his appeal.

Do you worry that this ruling may cause police officers to weigh the advantages of keeping arrested individuals unconfined in patrol cars in order to justify searching that person’s car? 

No, that does not worry me too much. I believe that most officers truly worry about their safety, so self-protection “demands” that they handcuff the arrestee.

Overall, this case reduces the risk that police will conduct pretextual searches of cars. That is, they won’t arrest a person and take her into custody simply because they have a wild suspicion they will find evidence of some other crime in the car. They could do that before Gant. Now, they can’t.

Did you agree with the Court’s interpretation in this case?

I agree entirely with the first part of the opinion. I would have preferred for the Court to say, more candidly, that they were overruling Belton, but the logic of the case seems unimpeachable. The reality is that when the police arrest a car occupant they typically handcuff him immediately — a wise idea given the prevalence of weapons in our society — and they move him to the back seat of the police vehicle. Just as in Gant. One would have to be Houdini to get out of the police car and into one’s vehicle and reach a weapon or evidence while handcuffed and in custody.

The second part of the opinion is more significant and, in some ways, open to question.  First, what does the Court mean when it says that the police may conduct the warrantless search of the car if they have “reason to believe” that there is evidence of the crime inside? Do they mean “probable cause”? If so, I agree with the result, but they didn’t use that terminology. So, is the Court justifying a warrantless search on less than probable cause; and, if so, how little suspicion must they have? It is a critically important question they will have to answer in the future.

Second, does this new rule apply to the entire car, including the trunk? Gant seems to be speaking of only the passenger compartment, but logically there is no reason to draw this distinction.

What cases do you see on the horizon regarding searches and seizures?

For awhile the Court was leaving search-and-seizure law fairly untouched, but they are quite aggressive these days. One thing they need to do, after Gant, is clarify its scope.

Beyond that, the Court has been narrowing the scope of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule lately. I am surprised they have done that: it is fairly rare today that a trial court will find that the police violated a citizen’s search-and-seizure rights, so it is fairly uncommon for the exclusionary rule to even come into play. So, why worry about the rule? But, I have been proven wrong: the Court has seen fit to narrow the rule in the last few years in somewhat ambiguous ways. I expect that they will take a case in the near future to clarify the scope of the exclusionary rule. They don’t have five votes now to abolish it, and I would assume that any new appointee by President Obama will favor retaining the exclusionary rule, but its scope is definitely at issue.