New York v. Belton, No. 80-328

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEWART
PartiesState of NEW YORK, Petitioner, v. Roger BELTON
Decision Date01 July 1981
Docket NumberNo. 80-328

453 U.S. 454
101 S.Ct. 2860
69 L.Ed.2d 768
State of NEW YORK, Petitioner,

v.

Roger BELTON.

No. 80-328.
Argued April 27, 1981.
Decided July 1, 1981.
Rehearing Denied Sept. 23, 1981.
See 453 U.S. 950, 102 S.Ct. 26.
Syllabus

An automobile in which respondent was one of the occupants was stopped by a New York State policeman for traveling at an excessive rate of speed. In the process of discovering that none of the occupants owned the car or was related to the owner, the policeman smelled burnt marihuana and saw on the floor of the car an envelope suspected of containing marihuana. He then directed the occupants to get out of the car and arrested them for unlawful possession of marihuana. After searching each of the occupants, he searched the passenger compartment of the car, found a jacket belonging to respondent, unzipped one of the pockets, and discovered cocaine. Subsequently, respondent was indicted for criminal possession of a controlled substance. After the trial court had denied his motion to suppress the cocaine seized from his jacket pocket, respondent pleaded guilty to a lesser included offense, while preserving his claim that the cocaine had been seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the search and seizure, but the New York Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The search of respondent's jacket was a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest, and hence did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The jacket, being located inside the passenger compartment of the car, was "within the arrestee's immediate control" within the meaning of Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685, wherein it was held that a lawful custodial arrest creates a situation justifying the contemporaneous warrantless search of the arrestee and of the immediately surrounding area. Not only may the police search the passenger compartment of the car in such circumstances, they may also examine the contents of any containers found in the passenger compartment. And such a container may be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have. Pp. 457-463.

50 N.Y.2d 447, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 407 N.E.2d 420, reversed.

Page 455

James R. Harvey, Canandaigua, N. Y., for petitioner.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D. C., for the U. S., as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Paul J. Cambria, Jr., Buffalo, N. Y., for respondent.

Justice STEWART, delivered the opinion of the Court.

When the occupant of an automobile is subjected to a lawful custodial arrest, does the constitutionally permissible scope of a search incident to his arrest include the passenger compartment of the automobile in which he was riding? That is the question at issue in the present case.

I

On April 9, 1978, Trooper Douglas Nicot, a New York State policeman driving an unmarked car on the New York Thruway, was passed by another automobile traveling at an excessive rate of speed. Nicot gave chase, overtook the speeding vehicle, and ordered its driver to pull it over to the side of the road and stop. There were four men in the car, one of whom was Roger Belton, the respondent in this case. The policeman asked to see the driver's license and automobile registration, and discovered that none of the men owned the vehicle or was related to its owner. Meanwhile, the policeman had smelled burnt marihuana and had seen on

Page 456

the floor of the car an envelope marked "Supergold" that he associated with marihuana. He therefore directed the men to get out the car, and placed them under arrest for the unlawful possession of marihuana. He patted down each of the men and "split them up into four separate areas of the Thruway at this time so they would not be in physical touching area of each other." He then picked up the envelope marked "Supergold" and found that it contained marihuana. After giving the arrestees the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694, the state policeman searched each one of them. He then searched the passenger compartment of the car. On the back seat he found a black leather jacket belonging to Belton. He unzipped one of the pockets of the jacket and discovered cocaine. Placing the jacket in his automobile, he drove the four arrestees to a nearby police station.

Belton was subsequently indicted for criminal possession of a controlled substance. In the trial court he moved that the cocaine the trooper had seized from the jacket pocket be suppressed. The court denied the motion. Belton then pleaded guilty to a lesser included offense, but preserved his claim that the cocaine had been seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. See Lefkowitz v. Newsome, 420 U.S. 283, 95 S.Ct. 886, 43 L.Ed.2d 196. The Appellant Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the search and seizure, reasoning that "[o]nce defendant was validly arrested for possession of marihuana, the officer was justified in searching the immediate area for other contraband." 68 A.D.2d 198, 201, 416 N.Y.S.2d 922, 925.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that "[a] warrantless search of the zippered pockets of an unaccessible jacket may not be upheld as a search incident to a lawful arrest where there is no longer any danger that the arrestee or a confederate might gain access to the article." 50 N.Y.2d 447, 449, 429 N.Y.S.2d 574, 575, 407 N.E.2d 420, 421. Two judges dis-

Page 457

sented. They pointed out that the "search was conducted by a lone peace officer who was in the process of arresting four unknown individuals whom he had stopped in a speeding car owned by none of them and apparently containing an uncertain quantity of a controlled substance. The suspects were standing by the side of the car as the officer gave it a quick check to confirm his suspicions before attempting to transport them to police headquarters . . . ." Id., at 454, 429 N.Y.S.2d, at 578, 407 N.E.2d, at 424. We granted certiorari to consider the constitutionally permissible scope of a search in circumstances such as these. 449 U.S. 1109, 101 S.Ct. 917, 66 L.Ed.2d 838.

II

It is a first principle of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that the police may not conduct a search unless they first convince a neutral magistrate that there is probable cause to do so. This Court has recognized, however, that "the exigencies of the situation" may sometimes make exemption from the warrant requirement "imperative." McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 456, 69 S.Ct. 191, 193, 93 L.Ed. 153. Specifically, the Court held in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685, that a lawful custodial arrest creates a situation which justifies the contemporaneous search without a warrant of the person arrested and of the immediately surrounding area. Such searches have long been considered valid because of the need "to remove any weapons that [the arrestee] might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape" and the need to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence. Id., at 763, 89 S.Ct., at 2040.

The Court's opinion in Chimel emphasized the principle that, as the Court had said in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1878, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, "the scope of [a] search must be 'strictly tied to and justified by' the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible." Quoted in Chimel v. California, supra, at 762, 89 S.Ct., at 2039. Thus while the Court in Chimel found "ample justification" for a search of "the area from within which [an arrestee]

Page 458

might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence," the Court found "no comparable justification . . . for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs—or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself." 395 U.S., at 763, 89 S.Ct., at 2040.

Although the principle that limits a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest may be stated clearly enough, courts have discovered the principle difficult to apply in specific cases. Yet, as one commentator has pointed out, the protection of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments "can only be realized if the police are acting under a set of rules which, in most instances, makes it possible to reach a correct determination beforehand as to whether an invasion of privacy is justified in the interest of law enforcement." LaFave, "Case-By-Case Adjudication" Versus "Standardized Procedures": The Robinson Dilemma, 1974 S.Ct.Rev. 127, 142. This is because

"Fourth Amendment doctrine, given force and effect by the exclusionary rule, is primarily intended to regulate the police in their day-to-day activities and thus ought to be expressed in terms that are readily applicable by the police in the context of the law enforcement activities in which they are necessarily engaged. A highly sophisticated set of rules, qualified by all sorts of ifs, ands, and buts and requiring the drawing of subtle nuances and hairline distinctions, may be the sort of heady stuff upon which the facile minds of lawyers and judges eagerly feed, but they may be 'literally impossible of application by the officer in the field.' " Id., at 141.

In short, "[a] single, familiar standard is essential to guide police officers, who have only limited time and expertise to reflect on and balance the social and individual interests involved in the specific circumstances they confront." Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 213-214, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 2256-57, 60 L.Ed.2d 824.

Page 459

So it was that, in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427, the...

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3081 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Gomez-Vega, Criminal No. 04-420 (CCC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • October 16, 2007
    ...Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 808, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982). In addition, the search would have been lawfully under New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 457, 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 2862, 2864, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981). Under Belton. when a police officer makes a lawful custodial arrest of the oc......
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    ...of violating the law have an "essential interest in readily administrable rules." Id., at 347, 121 S.Ct. 1536; accord, New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 458, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981). The officials in charge of the jails in this case urge the Court to reject any complicated con......
  • Serpas v. Schmidt, No. 85-2393
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    • July 17, 1987
    ...searches of the person are generally impermissible absent a warrant issued upon a determination of probable cause. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 457, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 2862, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981); Mary Beth G. v. City of Chicago, 723 F.2d 1263, 1268 (7th Cir.1983). The deficiencies we hav......
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3076 cases
  • U.S. v. Gomez-Vega, Criminal No. 04-420 (CCC).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • October 16, 2007
    ...Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 808, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982). In addition, the search would have been lawfully under New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 457, 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 2862, 2864, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981). Under Belton. when a police officer makes a lawful custodial arrest of the oc......
  • U.S. v. Amuny, No. 84-2376
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • July 29, 1985
    ...not attempt to claim that the search of the airplane was incident to the lawful arrest of the appellants. See, e.g., New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1982). For reasons not entirely apparent from the record, Agent Castro insisted that the appellants were not......
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    ...of violating the law have an "essential interest in readily administrable rules." Id., at 347, 121 S.Ct. 1536; accord, New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 458, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981). The officials in charge of the jails in this case urge the Court to reject any complicated con......
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    • July 17, 1987
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