IF AN OFFICER SEARCHES YOU "INCIDENT TO A ARREST" HOW FAR DOES THAT EXTEND?
An officer is generally allowed to search an individual and the area within the individual's immediate control when making an arrest. This is known as a search incident to arrest. The purpose of this type of search is to protect the officer's safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence.
The scope of a search incident to arrest is limited to the area within the arrestee's immediate control. This means that the officer is typically only allowed to search the area within the arrestee's reach or where the arrestee could potentially access something that could be used to harm the officer or destroy evidence. The officer is not allowed to search beyond this area unless there is probable cause to do so.
For example, if an individual is arrested in their car, the officer may search the passenger compartment of the car, including any containers or pockets within the arrestee's reach. However, the officer would not be allowed to search the trunk of the car unless they have probable cause to do so.
This case answers the following question: Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009).
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.