Arizona v. Gant
566 U.S. 332 (2009)
(Case Syllabus edited by the Author)
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 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, 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.
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 or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.
(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. 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. 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.
(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 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.
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. The search in this case was therefore unreasonable.
(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. 103, and United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, permit an officer to search a vehicle when safety or evidentiary concerns demand.
(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.
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. 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.