Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).
This case answers the following question:
When does a police officer exceed the scope of search incident to lawful arrest?
The issue in this case is whether police officers exceeded the scope of search incident to lawful arrest when they searched a vehicle after handcuffing and arresting the driver. Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.
Police officers received an anonymous tip that a certain residence was being used to sell drugs, so they went to the house and asked to speak to the owner. Gant answered the door, identified himself, and stated that he expected the owner to return later. The officers left the house and ran a record check on Gant, and they discovered that Gant’s driver’s license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. After arriving at the house a second time, the officers found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of the house. The man was arrested for providing false name and the woman for possessing drug paraphernalia. While these two were being handcuffed and secured in separate squad cars, Gant arrived. After confirming that Gant was in fact driving the vehicle, the officer immediately arrested Gant and handcuffed him. A second squad car was called to contain Gant, and Gant was handcuffed and placed in the backseat after the car’s arrival. After Gant was secured, the officers searched his car where they found a gun and a bag of cocaine. Gant moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car at trial. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and found Gant guilty. The Arizona Supreme Court reversed the decision finding that the search of Gant’s car was unreasonable.
Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. In this case, neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search. Here, there were five officers which outnumbered the three arrestees. Further, all three arrestees had been handcuffed and secured in separate squad cars before the search ever began. Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, so there was no chance that the police officers would have expected to find evidence of that offense in the passenger compartment of Gant’s car. The police officers at the scene could not have reasonably believed that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense of driving with a suspended license might have been found within the car.
For these reasons, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the case involved an unreasonable search. Therefore, the decision of the Arizona Supreme Court is affirmed.