US Supreme Court Tightens Rules for Motor Vehicle Searches – Arizona v. Gant

In a 5-4 decision this morning, the United States Supreme Court announced a major change to the law related to the search of a motor vehicle following the arrest of a recent occupant. In Arizona v. Gant, the Justices ruled that police may search a motor vehicle following the arrest of a recent occupant only if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search. The Court also ruled that a search for evidence inside the vehicle following an arrest will be considered constitutionally valid only when it is reasonable for the police to believe that evidence relevant to the offense triggering the arrest might be found within the vehicle.

The facts in Gant involve a driver who was stopped by the police and arrested for driving on the revoked list. The police removed him from the vehicle, and secured him inside of a police car. The police then conducted a search of the vehicle incident to the arrest and located a controlled, dangerous substance.

In analyzing the facts, the Court found that since the defendant had been removed and secured in a police car in handcuffs, he had no possibility of grabbing any type of weapon from the vehicle. Moreover, the police could not reasonably locate any evidence related to the offense of driving on the revoked list by searching the vehicle.

Today’s Supreme Court’s decision in Gant dramatically changes the state of the prior law as announced some 28 years ago in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). The rule in Belton suggested that police could automatically undertake a search of a motor vehicle for weapons and evidence every time a recent occupant had been arrested. In the years since Belton was published, it has been the subject of widespread criticism by Courts of Appeal and legal scholars. Indeed, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted (and detailed) this criticism of Belton as early as 1994 in State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184 (1994). Ultimately our state Supreme Court completely departed from the holding in Belton on state constitutional grounds in State v. Eckel, 185 N.J. 523 (2006).

Thus, although today’s holding will not affect current police procedures in New Jersey due to our state Supreme Court’s holding in Eckel, the ruling will dramatically affect thousands of police agencies throughout the rest of the country where the Belton rule has been the prevailing law.

Download a copy of Arizona v. Gant.

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