541 U.S. 615 (2004), 03-5165, Thornton v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 03-5165
Citation:541 U.S. 615, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905
Party Name:Thornton v. United States
Case Date:May 24, 2004
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 615

541 U.S. 615 (2004)

124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905



United States

No. 03-5165

United States Supreme Court

May 24, 2004

Argued March 31, 2004



Before Officer Nichols could pull over petitioner, petitioner parked and got out of his car. Nichols then parked, accosted petitioner, and arrested him after finding drugs in his pocket. Incident to the arrest, Nichols searched petitioner's car and found a handgun under the driver's seat. Petitioner was charged with federal drug and firearms violations. In denying his motion to suppress the firearm as the fruit of an unconstitutional search, the District Court found, inter alia, the automobile search valid under New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, in which this Court held that, when a police officer makes a lawful custodial arrest of an automobile's occupant, the Fourth Amendment allows the officer to search the vehicle's passenger compartment as a contemporaneous incident of arrest, id. at 460. Petitioner appealed his conviction, arguing that Belton was limited to situations where the officer initiated contact with an arrestee while he was still in the car. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.


Belton governs even when an officer does not make contact until the person arrested has left the vehicle. In Belton, the Court placed no reliance on the fact that the officer ordered the occupants out of the vehicle, or initiated contact with them while they remained within it. And here there is simply no basis to conclude that the span of the area generally within the arrestee's immediate control is determined by whether the arrestee exited the vehicle at the officer's direction or whether the officer initiated contact with him while he was in the car. In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and evidence destruction as one who is inside. Under petitioner's proposed "contact initiation" rule, officers who decide that it may be safer and more effective to conceal their presence until a suspect has left his car would be unable to search the passenger compartment in the event of a custodial arrest, potentially compromising their safety and placing incriminating evidence at risk of concealment or destruction. The Fourth Amendment does not require such a gamble. Belton allows police to search a car's passenger compartment incident to a lawful arrest of both "occupants" and "recent occupants." Ibid. While an arrestee's status as a "recent occupant" may turn on his temporal or spatial relationship to

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the car at the time of the arrest and search, it certainly does not turn on whether he was inside or outside the car when the officer first initiated contact with him. Although not all contraband in the passenger compartment is likely to be accessible to a "recent occupant," the need for a clear rule, readily understood by police and not depending on differing estimates of what items were or were not within an arrestee's reach at any particular moment, justifies the sort of generalization which Belton enunciated. Under petitioner's rule, an officer would have to determine whether he actually confronted or signaled confrontation with the suspect while he was in his car, or whether the suspect exited the car unaware of, and for reasons unrelated to, the officer's presence. Such a rule would be inherently subjective and highly fact-specific, and would require precisely the sort of ad hoc determinations on the part of officers in the field and reviewing courts that Belton sought to avoid. Pp. 619-624.

325 F.3d 189 affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court except as to footnote 4. KENNEDY, THOMAS, and BREYER, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and O'CONNOR, J., joined as to all but footnote 4. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part., post, p. 624. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which GINSBURG, J., joined., post, p. 625. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SOUTER, J., joined, post, p. 633.

Page 617


REHNQUIST, CHIEF JUSTICE, except as to footnote 4.

In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), we held that when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of an occupant of an automobile, the Fourth Amendment allows the officer to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle as a contemporaneous incident of arrest. We have granted certiorari twice before to determine whether Belton's rule is limited to situations where the officer makes contact with the occupant while the occupant is inside the vehicle, or whether it applies as well when the officer first makes contact with the arrestee after the latter has stepped out of his vehicle. We did not reach the merits in either of those two cases. Arizona v. Gant, 540 U.S. ___ (2003) (vacating and remanding for reconsideration in light of State v. Dean, 206 Ariz. 158, 76 P.3d 429 (2003)); Florida v. Thomas, 532 U.S. 774 (2001) (dismissing for lack of jurisdiction). We now reach that question and conclude that Belton governs even when an officer does not make contact until the person arrested has left the vehicle.

Officer Deion Nichols of the Norfolk, Virginia, Police Department, who was in uniform but driving an unmarked police car, first noticed petitioner Marcus Thornton when petitioner slowed down so as to avoid driving next to him. Nichols suspected that petitioner knew he was a police officer and for some reason did not want to pull next to him. His suspicions aroused, Nichols pulled off onto a side street

Page 618

and petitioner passed him. After petitioner passed him, Nichols ran a check on petitioner's license tags, which revealed that the tags had been issued to a 1982 Chevy two-door and not to a Lincoln Town Car, the model of car petitioner was driving. Before Nichols had an opportunity to pull him over, petitioner drove into a parking lot, parked, and got out of the vehicle. Nichols saw petitioner leave his vehicle as he pulled in behind him. He parked the patrol car, accosted petitioner, and asked him for his driver's license. He also told him that his license tags did not match the vehicle that he was driving.

Petitioner appeared nervous. He began rambling and licking his lips; he was sweating. Concerned for his safety, Nichols asked petitioner if he had any narcotics or weapons on him or in his vehicle. Petitioner said no. Nichols then asked petitioner if he could pat him down, to which petitioner agreed. Nichols felt a bulge in petitioner's left front pocket and again asked him if he had any illegal narcotics on him. This time petitioner stated that he did, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out two individual bags, one containing three bags of marijuana and the other containing a large amount of crack cocaine. Nichols handcuffed petitioner, informed him that he was under arrest, and placed him in the back seat of the patrol car. He then searched petitioner's vehicle and found a BryCo .9-millimeter handgun under the driver's seat.

A grand jury charged petitioner with possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, 84 Stat. 1260, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), possession of a firearm after having been previously convicted of a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, § 924(c)(1). Petitioner sought to suppress, inter alia, the firearm as the fruit of an unconstitutional search. After a hearing, the District Court denied petitioner's motion to suppress, holding that the automobile search was valid under

Page 619

New York v. Belton, supra, and alternatively that Nichols could have conducted an inventory search of the automobile. A jury convicted petitioner on all three counts; he was sentenced to 180 months' imprisonment and 8 years of supervised release.

Petitioner appealed, challenging only the District Court's denial of the suppression motion. He argued that Belton was limited to situations where the officer initiated contact with an arrestee while he was still an occupant of the car. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. 325 F.3d 189 (2003). It held that

the historical rationales for the search incident to arrest doctrine -- "the need to disarm the suspect in order to take him into custody" and "the need to preserve evidence for later use at trial,"

id. at 195 (quoting Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 116 (1998)), did not require Belton to be limited solely to situations in which suspects were still in their vehicles when approached by the police. Noting that petitioner conceded that he was in "close proximity, both temporally and spatially," to his vehicle, the court concluded that the car was within petitioner's immediate control, and thus Nichols' search was reasonable under Belton.[1] 325 F.3d at 196. We granted certiorari, 540 U.S. 980 (2003), and now affirm.

In Belton, an officer overtook a speeding vehicle on the New York Thruway and ordered its driver to pull over. 453 U.S. at 455. Suspecting that the occupants possessed marijuana, the officer directed them to get out of the car and arrested them for unlawful possession. Id. at 454-455. He searched them and then searched the passenger compartment of the car. Id. at 455. We considered the constitutionally permissible scope of a search in these circumstances and sought to lay down a workable rule governing that situation.

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We first referred to Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), a case where the arrestee was arrested in his home, and we had described the scope of a search incident to a lawful arrest as the person of the arrestee and the area immediately surrounding him. 453 U.S. at 457 (citing Chimel, supra, at 763). This rule was justified by the need to...

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