How the U.S. Supreme Court’s Latest Search and Seizure Decision Could Affect You

How the U.S. Supreme Court’s Latest Search and Seizure Decision Could Affect You

On April 21, 2009, the United States Supreme Court held that the police may search a passenger compartment of a car incident to an 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. Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009).

Defendant Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and locked in the back of a police cruiser while the police searched his car and found cocaine in a jacket that was lying on the backseat. The Supreme Court overruled a drug conviction of Gant, who was arrested for driving on a suspended license and affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision that the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement did not justify the search in this case.

The general rule that applies to the reasonableness of a warrantless search analysis is that warrantless searches are considered unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment subject only to a few established exceptions. The search incident to a lawful arrest exception, high-lighted in the Gant decision, exists due to the public interest in officer safety and evidence preservation. The exception may only apply to include the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control; in other words, any area he or she may gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence. If there is no possibility an arrestee could reach into the area that law enforcement officers seek to search, the exception does not apply.

Prior to Gant, Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969) was in effect and continues to be good law. Chimel stood for the proposition that the arrestee’s ability to lunge to an area and destroy evidence or reach a weapon can justify a search incident to arrest. However, once the arrestee is handcuffed and moved away from the automobile, his or her ability to reach evidence or a weapon is eliminated or at least greatly reduced.

The Gant decision is under fire by those who believe that the rule will complicate the daily duties of law enforcement officers. The naysayers argue that law enforcement officers will have to decide between a trade off every time they decide to search an automobile: (1) to legally justify their search, should the officer leave the arrestee un-handcuffed near the automobile, along with the dangerous possibility that the arrestee may reach a weapon or remain able to destroy evidence? This option may risk the law enforcement officer’s safety or result in the destruction of evidence so that the State is unable to ultimately prove a case against the defendant. (2) Or, should the officer handcuff and secure the arrestee outside of the searched area and risk violating the Fourth Amendment?

Some critics believe that due to these consequences, the Gant decision has effectively omitted the search incident to arrest vehicle exception. However, the scope of the Gant decision is limited. Under Gant, once the suspect is secured, a search incident to the arrest is legal only if there is a basis for the belief that the automobile holds evidence of the crime that the arrest is based upon.

Other Fourth Amendment warrantless search exceptions under Florida law continue to possibly apply. These include the emergency or exigency circumstance doctrine, voluntary consent, plain view doctrine, search based on probable cause coupled with exigent circumstances, search in connection with the seizure of an automobile for the purpose of a forfeiture proceeding, a bona fide inventory search, a protective search for weapons known as a “frisk” incident to a stop with appropriate reasonable suspicion, and parole or probation searches.

As of the date this article was published, Florida courts have yet to cite or interpret the Gant decision. Please check back with Pinellas criminal defense attorneys Rooth Law Group to keep you updated on any Florida court rulings interpreting Gant to see how this seminal decision will affect Florida defendants’ Fourth Amendment protections and the duties of law enforcement officials in this State.

If you have any questions about your arrest and search and seizure, call St. Petersburg drug trafficking defense attorneys Rooth Law Group today for a free consultation, (727) 797-9600 in Pinellas County, (813) 333-6517 in Hillsborough County.

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