Search Incident to Arrest is No Longer a Blanket Exception to the Warrant Requirement

Modifications to the Incident to Arrest Doctrine

The United States Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that modifies the search incident to arrest doctrine, rejecting a broad reading of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). In Arizona v. Gant,  556 U.S. 332; 129 S Ct 1710, 1721; 173 L.Ed.2d 485 (2009), the Court overturned the search incident to arrest of Rodney Gant’s car after Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and secured in the back of a patrol car. With several officers at the scene, officers found cocaine in Gant’s car during the search incident to the driver license arrest.Man being handcuffed

The Court held that a search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle following an arrest is allowed “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.”

Chimel V. California

The holding of Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752 (1969), continues to be good law, insofar as the search incident to arrest can be justified by the suspect’s ability to lunge to an area and destroy evidence or reach a weapon. However, once the suspect is handcuffed and moved away from the vehicle, the suspect’s ability to reach evidence or a weapon is eliminated, or at least significantly reduced.

Five years ago, in Thornton v. United States, 541 U. S. 615 (2004), the Court recognized that a search of a vehicle incident to the arrest of a recent occupant may be also justified “when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” The Gant decision also leaves this holding intact. Because Gant and the other two suspects were in custody, handcuffed, and secured in separate police cars, the Court refused to apply the Chimel lunge or reaching justification to the case. And because Gant was arrested for a driver license violation, the Thornton evidentiary search holding would not apply. It was not reasonable to believe that the vehicle held evidence of Gant’s suspended driver license status.

Gant stands for the proposition that once the arrestee is secured, a search incident to arrest of the involved vehicle is lawful only when there is reason to believe that the vehicle holds evidence of the underlying crime on which the arrest is based. Gant does not foreclose other search doctrines that may apply to particular cases. Fourth Amendment warrant clause exceptions of consent, probation/parole search, exigent circumstances, vehicle “frisk” for weapons upon appropriate reasonable suspicion, inventory and community caretaking, continue to potentially apply.

If you have a search, seizure, or suppression issue in your case and you would like a free consultation on your case, please do not hesitate to contact LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C.  at (248) 263-6800 or fill out a Request for Assistance Form and an experienced Michigan Criminal Defense Attorney will promptly contact you.


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