Arizona v. Gant
Bill Long 9/21/08
Docket No. 07-542; Oral Arg. October 7, 2008
This case, like Herring, implicates the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution but, unlike Herring (which had to do with excluding evidence wrongly gathered) deals specifically with what is called the "search incident to arrest" doctrine developed by the Court over the last 40 or so years. "Search incident to arrest" is shorthand for how broadly an arresting officer can, without a warrant, search premises near an arrested person. The 'premises' usually refers to an automobile or a room/house where a person is arrested.
For example, let's say a person is arrested in his car for some offense. May the officer search the car without a warrant against the will of the occupant? How much of the car? Though the Court has been trying to answer this question for many years, a few cases are most important.
In Chimel v. CA, 395 US 752 (1969), the Court laid out its understanding in the following language:
"When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer's safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of someone who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee's person and the area 'within his immediate control'—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence."
Thus, Chimel laid out the rule that search of the 'area within control' was permissible, for two reasons: to protect officer safety and to preserve evidence. How much of a car is "within control" of a defendant? Well, that would also be subject to a case-by-case analysis.
Twelve years later, the Court purported to affirm Chimel in the New York v. Belton case (453 US 454 (1981)). The Court held that police officers who made a valid arrest of a person inside a vehicle could make a contemporaneous search of the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle, including any containers in that compartment. So, Belton attempted to give what we in law call a "bright-line" rule--as a way of explaining Chimel. The passenger compartment (however broadly that reaches--I suppose the entire interior of the vehicle?) is "within control" of the driver.
The case before the Court turns on whether the occupant had to be in the vehicle at the time of the arrest. Follow the facts...
Essential Facts of Gant
The following facts are taken from the State's Petition for Certiorari.
"On August 25, 1999, two Tucson, Arizona, police officers went to a house suspected of being used for narcotics activity. One officer knocked on the door, and Respondent Rodney Gant answered. The officers asked to speak with the homeowner, but Gant told them that the owner was not at home and would not return until later that day. Gant gave the officers information about his identity. The officers left and ran a records check on Gant and discovered that his license was suspended and that he had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license."
No problem yet. Mr. Gant is still free as a bird. I bet he hoped that life just "froze" at this instant. But, of course, it didn't--else there would be no case. Here is what happened next:
"The officers returned to the house that evening. They found two individuals outside the house and, after investigation, arrested them. While the officers were handcuffing the individuals and placing them in patrol cars, Gant drove up in his car and parked in the driveway. One officer summoned Gant as he got out of his car, and Gant walked approximately eight to twelve feet toward the officer. The officer told Gant that he was under arrest for driving with a suspended license and handcuffed him. The officer placed Gant in a patrol car."
So, Gant is out of his car when he was arrested. He had just left his car, but he was not within reach of the car. Indeed, since he was cuffed and put in the patrol car, no one disputes that he had no access to his car.
Of course, you now see where this is going. While Gant was cuffed and in the patrol car, officers conducted a search of the passenger compartment of the car, and found a handgun and a plastic baggie containing cocaine. Why don't these guys just eat Junior Mints or Mentos? Well, we now have the issue in a nutshell. Was the search of the car after Gant had left the car and was arrested a valid "search incident to arrest?" Obviously this case is a vehicle (pun intended) to determine if the Court wants to expand that doctrine a bit over previous cases.
Legal Discussion and Conclusion
The crucial point is whether the Court will expand the apparently "spatial" requirement of Belton into a "spatial/temporal" requirement (my words). Does the defendant have to be in the vicinity of the weapon and/or evidence so that he might use the one or destroy the other in order for a search incident to arrest to be valid? Or, might he only be in the vicinity of those items, but at one time in the immediate recent past been next to them? I believe the Court will expand the Belton bright-line rule to include this case, though if they do they seem to be questioning the underlying rationale of Chimel. It is by these increments, however, that law usually develops...