Apr 21, 2009

Brakes Put to Car Searches


Arizona v. Gant has put a sudden stop to a decades-long practice of police officers routinely searching cars after arresting the drivers. In this April 2009 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that merely arresting a driver does not allow police officers to search the car. However, a search of an arrested driver's car can be valid if the arresting officer reasonably believes the car might contain evidence relating to the offense for which the driver was arrested.

In the Gant case, Gant was arrested in his driveway for driving with a suspended license.  He was arrested, cuffed and placed in the back of the police car.  The arresting officers then searched Gant's car and found cocaine. The Court ruled that the seizure of the cocaine was illegal because the officers had no right to search Gant's car.  Gant had no access to the car, and the officers could not reasonably believe that a search would yield evidence relating to the offense of driving with a suspended license.

Beyond the rule that it establishes, the Gant case is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it overrules decades of lower court rulings that had led police to believe that they had carte blanche to search cars after arresting their drivers.  A second noteworthy aspect of Gant consists of the unusual grouping of justices who formed the 5-to-4 majority.  Justices Scalia and Thomas, who are often aligned with conservative views, formed part of the majority.  Meanwhile Justice Breyer, often aligned with liberal views, was one of the dissenters.  If nothing else, it's always refreshing when justices don't slavishly adhere to predicted, partisan viewpoints.