Aug 20, 2009

Warrantless Car Searches Under "Arizona v. Gant"

In its 2009 decision in Arizona v. Gant, the US Supreme Court decided that under the 4th Amendment, police officers cannot use an arrest as a reason to make a warrantless search of a suspect's car unless the police reasonably believe that the car contains crime-related evidence. How often Gant forces arresting officers to obtain search warrants before searching cars depends on how liberally judges interpret the word "reasonably."  

The 2009 California case of People v. Osborne suggests that judges will cut police officers a lot of slack In that case, police officers pulled Osborne's car over. They searched Osborne, found a loaded gun in his pocket and arrested him for the crime of being a felon in possession of a gun.  The officers then searched Osborne's car, found a cache of illegal drugs inside, and added drug distribution charges to the list of Osborne's problems.  Osborne asked the court to dismiss the drug charges, arguing that the officers had no right to search his car without first obtaining a search warrant.

Osborne lost.  The court ruled that the weapons charge justified the car search.  The officers could reasonably believe that the car might contain additional evidence of the crime of being a felon in possession of a gun, such as bullets or a holster.    

If other courts interpret Gant as the Osborne court did, Gant won't prevent many warrantless car searches.  Police officers probably won't be able to justify warrantless searches based on traffic offenses such as speeding.  After all, what additional evidence of speeding could a car possibly contain?   An accelerator pedal?  But when arrests are based on something other than a traffic offense, police officers should have little trouble identifying crime-related evidence that they thought they might find in the car.