556 U.S. 332 (2009), 07-542, Arizona v. Gant

Docket Nº:07-542.
Citation:556 U.S. 332, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 173 L.Ed.2d 485, 77 U.S.L.W. 4285
Party Name:ARIZONA, Petitioner, v. Rodney Joseph GANT.
Case Date:April 21, 2009
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 332

556 U.S. 332 (2009)

129 S.Ct. 1710, 173 L.Ed.2d 485, 77 U.S.L.W. 4285

ARIZONA, Petitioner,

v.

Rodney Joseph GANT.

No. 07-542.

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 2009

Argued October 7, 2008

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ARIZONA

[129 S.Ct. 1711][129 S.Ct. 1712]Syllabus[*]

Respondent Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in a patrol car before officers searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket pocket. The Arizona trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence, and he was convicted of drug offenses. Reversing, the State Supreme Court distinguished New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768—which held that police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and any containers therein as a contemporaneous incident of a recent occupant's lawful arrest—on the ground that it concerned the scope of a search incident to arrest but did not answer the question whether officers may conduct such a search once the scene has been secured. Because Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685, requires that a search incident to arrest be justified by either the interest in officer safety or the interest in preserving evidence and the circumstances of Gant's arrest implicated neither of those interests, the State Supreme Court found the search unreasonable.

Held:

Police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search [129 S.Ct. 1713] or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. Pp. 1716 - 1724.

(a) Warrantless searches "are per se unreasonable," "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576. The exception for a search incident to a lawful arrest applies only to " the area from within which [an arrestee] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." Chimel, 395 U.S., at 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034. This Court applied that exception to the automobile context in Belton, the holding of which rested in large part on the assumption that articles inside a vehicle's passenger compartment are "generally ... within 'the area into which an arrestee might reach.'" 453 U.S., at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860. Pp. 1716 - 1718.

(b) This Court rejects a broad reading of Belton that would permit a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant's arrest even if there were no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search. The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel's exception authorize a vehicle search only when there is a reasonable possibility of such access. Although it does not follow from Chimel, circumstances unique to the automobile context also justify a

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search incident to a lawful arrest when it is "reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 632, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed..2d 905 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment). Neither Chimel's reaching-distance rule nor Thornton's allowance for evidentiary searches authorized the search in this case. In contrast to Belton, which involved a single officer confronted with four unsecured arrestees, five officers handcuffed and secured Gant and the two other suspects in separate patrol cars before the search began. Gant clearly could not have accessed his car at the time of the search. An evidentiary basis for the search was also lacking. Belton and Thornton were both arrested for drug offenses, but Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license—an offense for which police could not reasonably expect to find evidence in Gant's car. Cf. Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 118, 119 S.Ct. 484, 142 L.Ed.2d 492. The search in this case was therefore unreasonable. Pp. 1718 -1720.

(c) This Court is unpersuaded by the State's argument that its expansive reading of Belton correctly balances law enforcement interests with an arrestee's limited privacy interest in his vehicle. The State seriously undervalues the privacy interests at stake, and it exaggerates both the clarity provided by a broad reading of Belton and its importance to law enforcement interests. A narrow reading of Belton and Thornton, together with this Court's other Fourth Amendment decisions, e.g., Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201, and United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572, permit an officer to search a vehicle when safety or evidentiary concerns demand. Pp. 1719 — 1721.

(d) Stare decisis does not require adherence to a broad reading of Belton. The experience of the 28 years since Belton has shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded, and blind adherence to its faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches. Pp. 1722 - 1724.

216 Ariz. 1, 162 P.3d 640, affirmed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed a concurring opinion. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion. [129 S.Ct. 1714] Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, J., joined, and in which Breyer, J., joined except as to Part II–E.

Anthony Yang, for United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court,' supporting the petitioner.

Thomas F. Jacobs, for respondent.

Terry Goddard, Attorney General, Mary R. O'Grady, Solicitor General, Kent E. Cattani, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals/ Capital Litigation Section, Joseph T. Maziarz, Assistant Attorney General, Counsel of Record, Criminal Appeals/Capital Litigation Section, Phoenix, Arizona, for petitioner.

Jeffrey T. Green, Isaac Adams, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, DC, Thomas F. Jacobs, Counsel of Record, Tucson, AZ, for respondent.

Terry Goddard, Attorney General, Mary R. O'Grady, Solicitor General, Randall M. Howe, Chief Counsel, Criminal Appeals Section, Counsel of Record, Phoenix, Arizona, Joseph T. Maziarz, Nicholas D. Acedo, Assistant Attorneys General, Criminal Appeals Section, for petitioner.

OPINION

Stevens, Justice

After Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car, police officers searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. Because Gant could not have accessed his car to retrieve weapons or evidence at the time of the search, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, as defined in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), and applied to vehicle searches in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981), did not justify the search in this case. We agree with that conclusion.

Under Chimel, police may search incident to arrest only the space within an arrestee's "'immediate control,'" meaning "the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." 395 U.S., at 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034. The safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel's reaching-distance rule determine Belton's scope. Accordingly, we hold that Belton does not authorize a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant's arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle. Consistent with the holding in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 158 L.Ed.2d 905 (2004), and following the suggestion in Justice SCALIA's opinion concurring in the judgment in that case, id., at 632, 124 S.Ct. 2127, we also conclude that circumstances unique to the automobile context justify a search incident to arrest when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.

I

On August 25, 1999, acting on an anonymous tip that the residence at 2524 North Walnut Avenue was being used to sell drugs, Tucson police officers Griffith and Reed knocked on the front door and asked to speak to the owner. Gant answered the door and, after identifying himself, stated [129 S.Ct. 1715] that he expected the owner to return later. The officers left the residence and conducted a records check, which revealed that Gant's driver's license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.

When the officers returned to the house that evening, they found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of it. After a third officer arrived, they arrested the man for providing a false name and the woman for possessing drug paraphernalia. Both arrestees were handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars when Gant arrived. The officers recognized his car as it entered the driveway, and Officer Griffith confirmed that Gant was the driver by shining a flashlight into the car as it drove by him. Gant parked at the end of the driveway, got out of his car, and shut the door. Griffith, who was about 30 feet away, called to Gant, and they approached each other, meeting 10-to-12 feet from Gant's car. Griffith immediately arrested Gant and handcuffed him.

Because the other arrestees were secured in the only patrol cars at the scene, Griffith called for backup. When two more officers arrived, they locked Gant in the backseat of their vehicle. After Gant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, two officers searched his car: One of them found a gun, and the other discovered a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.

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