Top court clips police authority to search cars

Supreme Court limits warrantless police searches to instances when an officer or evidence is in danger.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ending a decades-long trend favoring law enforcement, the US Supreme Court has moved to restrict the ability of police to conduct open-ended searches of automobiles during traffic stops.

In a 5 to 4 decision announced Tuesday, the nation's highest court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not permit police to conduct a warrantless search of a car unless the search is immediately necessary to safeguard the arresting officer's safety or to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence.

The decision means that police cannot rely on a mere traffic violation to authorize a general search for guns, drugs, or other contraband. Such searches created "a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.

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"The character of that threat implicates the central concern underlying the Fourth Amendment – the concern about giving police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects."

The ruling in Arizona v. Gant narrows a 28-year-old rule that had authorized law enforcement officials to conduct car searches without a warrant during traffic stops. In a subsequent decision, the high court expanded that rule to allow searches without a warrant even after a motorist was being held securely in police custody.

Now, police will have new rules to follow. Justice Stevens said the location of the arrested person is important. If that person is still "within reaching distance of the passenger compartment" – in other words, able to potentially disturb evidence or grab a weapon – police can conduct a warrantless search, he wrote. The majority justices said the justification for a warrantless automobile search disappears once the motorist has been handcuffed and placed safely in a patrol car. After that, police must obtain a court-authorized search warrant from a neutral judge.

Stevens added that a warrantless search would also be justified "when it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest."

The ruling is expected to require retraining at police agencies across the country.

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the high court's new rule may endanger arresting police officers. He said it will also confuse law enforcement officials and judges "for some time to come."

Justice Alito added: "The court's decision will cause the suppression of evidence gathered in many searches carried out in good faith reliance on well-settled case law."

Tuesday's decision stems from the August 1999 arrest of Rodney Gant by the Tucson Police Department. Officers were investigating suspected drug activity at a house in Tucson. They had encountered Mr. Gant at the house earlier in the day.

A records search revealed an outstanding warrant for Gant's arrest for failing to appear on a charge of driving with a suspended license. That evening, Gant was arrested on the outstanding warrant shortly after he parked and exited his car near the house.

Once arrested, Gant was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a patrol car. The police then searched Gant's car, where they found cocaine and a handgun.

Gant was charged with possession of cocaine for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia.

At trial, Gant's lawyer moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that police had conducted an unreasonable search of his car by failing to first obtain a search warrant or Gant's permission. Prosecutors argued that the case triggered an exception to the warrant requirement. Because Gant had only just exited the car, they said, police were entitled to search the vehicle in connection with his arrest.

The trial court upheld the search. Gant was convicted and sentenced to a three-year prison term.

The Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court both ruled that police violated Gant's Fourth Amendment privacy rights by conducting the warrantless search of his car.

They ordered the seized evidence suppressed. The courts reasoned that at the time of his arrest, Gant was not in close proximity to his car, so police officers had no reason to initiate an immediate search of the car.

Joining Stevens in the majority were Justices Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In addition to Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer dissented.

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