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Supreme Court limits car searches

Police may not search a car incident to the driver’s arrest, after he is handcuffed and placed in the squad car, unless it is reasonable to expect that evidence of the offense of arrest will be found in the car.

That April 21 holding by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturns some Wisconsin precedents allowing police to conduct such searches whenever they arrest the driver.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case, Arizona v. Gant, Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car. Police then searched the car and found cocaine.

The Arizona Supreme Court held the search was unlawful, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, in an opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens.

The court acknowledged that one of its own precedents, New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), has been “widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search.”

Those interpretations are based on the following language in Belton: “[W]e hold that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.” Belton, at 460.

However, the court rejected those interpretations and limited its broad statement in Belton.

“We now know that articles inside the passenger compartment are rarely ‘within “the area into which an arrestee might reach,”’ and blind adherence to Belton’s faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches,” Stevens wrote. “The doctrine of stare decisis does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations.”

Applying the standard to Gant, the court held the search incident to arrest unconstitutional.

Handcuffed and locked in a squad car, the court found he could not pose any threat to the officers. Also, while the defendant in Belton had been arrested for a drug offense, Gant was only arrested for driving with a suspended license, and thus, the police could not expect to find evidence of the crime in Gant’s car.

Justice Antonin G. Scalia wrote a concurrence, arguing that the lead opinion’s standard invites officers not to secure suspects, in order to justify a search incident to arrest.

“I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto ‘reasonable’ only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred,” Scalia wrote.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito both wrote dissents, maintaining that Belton is binding precedent, and stare decisis warrants continued adherence to it.
“I would simply apply Belton and reverse the judgment below,” Alito wrote.

Analysis

The opinion lends clarity to an issue that has been analyzed in a very inconsistent fashion in Wisconsin courts.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court first applied Belton in State v. Fry, 131 Wis.2d 153, 388 N.W.2d 565 (1986).

Fry was arrested for trespass and placed in a squad car, after which the officers searched his car and discovered a concealed weapon in the glove compartment.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld his conviction, reasoning, “The Belton rule is a simple and reasonable rule governing the search of an automobile after an arrest is made. A police officer may assume under Belton that the interior of an automobile is within the reach of a defendant when the defendant is still at the scene of an arrest, but the defendant is not physically in the vehicle.” Fry, 388 N.W.2d at 574.

In State v. Pallone, 2001 WI 77, 236 Wis.2d 162, 613 N.W.2d 568, however, the court also upheld a search incident to arrest, but employed a very different analysis.
Pallone was a passenger in a pickup truck. The driver was arrested for driving with an open intoxicant, handcuffed, and placed in the squad car.

According to the arresting officer, there was a duffel bag in the truck, Pallone was nervous, and his behavior suggested there was something in the duffel bag he didn’t want the officer to see.

A search incident to the driver’s arrest yielded cocaine and paraphernalia, and Pallone was charged with possession with intent to deliver.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the legality of the search.

In doing so, however, it interpreted a more recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 116-17 (1998), to require that a search of a car incident to an occupant’s arrest be tied to one of the exception’s two rationales: (1) officer safety; and (2) the need for evidence. Pallone, at par. 39.

The court then determined that both concerns justified the search of the duffel bag. It could have contained a weapon (threat to officer’s safety); or it could have contained more beer (evidence relevant to the crime for which the driver was arrested). Id., at pars. 47-53.

That Pallone remains valid law in light of the opinion in Gant is underscored by a footnote from Alito’s dissent, stating that the opinion does not reach situations where an officer arrests some, but not all, of the occupants of a vehicle.

However, a recent published opinion from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals is no longer valid. That opinion abandoned the analysis employed in Pallone, and reverted to that employed in Fry. State v. Littlejohn, 2008 WI App 45, 747 N.W.2d 712.

Littlejohn was arrested for driving after revocation of his license. He was handcuffed, arrested, and placed in the patrol car.

The police then conducted a search of his car incident to arrest, and as a result of the search, he was charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana.

The trial court granted his motion to suppress, but the Court of Appeals reversed, relying exclusively on Fry, and all but ignoring Pallone.

Littlejohn clearly posed no threat to the officers once he was handcuffed in the squad car; there were no other occupants to present a threat; and the search of the car clearly was not intended to gather evidence of driving after revocation.

So, while Pallone remains valid law, Fry and Littlejohn should be deemed overruled by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gant.

8 comments

  1. How great is this that our wonderful Supreme Court justices in all their wisdom have given the criminals yet one more chance to let the criminals get away with murder. I hope this weighs on the GREAT JUSTICES minds at night when they try to sleep. A cop stops a vehicle for a traffic violation and arrests a passenger or the driver for a petty warrant. After making the arrest, the other occupant gets the gun that the arrestee had resting under his seat. As the cop leaves the location without searching the vehicle, he gets shot and killed, leaving his wife husbandless and his kids fatherless. That is why we search the cars incident to arrest, so that there is no contraband left and no unlawful carrying of weapons. IT IS FOR OUR SAFTEY YOU IDIOTS! Thanks for allowing the criminals to get by with something else.

  2. That’s a very inaccurate assessment. Let me iterate, “That Pallone remains valid law in light of the opinion in Gant is underscored by a footnote from Alito

  3. “Those who would trade in their freedom for protection deserve neither.” Ben Franklin

  4. If the cops stops you just shove your-dope,switchblade,stolen gun, pipe bomb, body parts,dirty bomb,…. under the seat and your off! As long as its not on “your person” your free! Now criminals can carry whatever they want in a car as long it will fit under the seat! Thats just real nice.

  5. B.
    You can’t seriously believe that just because police pick someone up for driving after revocation, they should be subject to having their vehicle searched? The 4th Amendment protects us from UNREASONABLE search and seizure. The Supreme Court did the right thing by determining that police must have have a reasonable expectation that what they find will relate to the offense. That’s particularly important when officers are known to base their decisions to search vehicles during traffic stops on nothing more than an individual’s racial profile.

  6. Raymond Sanders

    The thing that everyone seems to miss is that, the 4th amendment and the 14th amendment are not in the constitution to protect the guilty, the exsist to protect us all. For every automobile search that uncovers evidence of criminal behavior, there are a whole lot more searches that uncover nothing. If I am speeding, I deserve a ticket. I do not deserve to be kept on the side of the road for an extended period of time, I do not deserve to be asked where I am going, where have I been, where do I work, what’s in my trunk? I do not deserve to have my things drug out in the ditch and thrown on the ground, my door panels permanently broken and damaged, my trim around my door post broken, my glove compartment emptied and ran sacked. I deserve a ticket…… nothing more.

  7. Why does everyone always think everything police do is for our safety? If you want to be one of these people who watch the news and think there’s danger everywhere and want a government that throws out human rights in the interest of all goto China! The U.S. was the greatest country because everyone has rights that were protected! Anyone notice things aren’t as good as they used to be? The reason is TV and all those who believe everything they hear or see by the media, unless one day their rights are violated. I feel ashamed because of all those who gave their lives to fight tyrants to keep this country great for idots like bh.

  8. Why does everyone always think everything police do is for our safety? If you want to be one of these people who watch the news and think there’s danger everywhere and want a government that throws out human rights in the interest of all goto China! The U.S. was the greatest country because everyone has rights that were protected! Anyone notice things aren’t as good as they used to be? The reason is TV and all those who believe everything they hear or see by the media, unless one day their rights are violated. I feel ashamed because of all those who gave their lives to fight tyrants to keep this country great for idots like bh.

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