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.
Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).
This case answers the following question:
Can a police officer search a person’s residence without a warrant if they are arrested inside the home?
The issue in this case is whether the police officers exceeded the scope of search incident to lawful arrest by searching the entire house without a separate warrant. The scope of search incident to lawful arrest extends to the person and the area within his immediate control.
In this case, police officers arrived at the home of Chimel with a warrant for his arrest. Chimel’s wife answered the door and ushered the police officers into the house. The officers waited ten to fifteen minutes until Chimel arrived home from work. Upon arriving home, the officers handed Chimel the arrest warrant and asked to look around the house. Chimel refused, but he was told that on the basis of the lawful arrest, the officers would conduct a search anyways, even without being issued a search warrant. The officers then searched the entire house, accompanied by Chimel’s wife. The search lasted somewhere between forty-five and sixty minutes, and the officers seized a number of items, including coins, medals, and tokens. The lower court convicted Chimel and ruled that both the arrest and the search were lawful. The California Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court affirmed the ruling.
The scope of search incident to lawful arrest extends to the person and the area within his immediate control. This scope was enacted primarily to protect police officers and ensure the integrity of any evidence. The scope of the person to be arrested and his immediate area is construed to mean the area from within which the person might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence. If police officers were given the ability to search a suspect’s home without a warrant simply because they arrested him in his house, it would encourage police officers to make all arrests in the home, in order to legally search the house for evidence without a warrant.
The majority of the analysis of this case was spent on explaining the rationale for overruling the established precedent that allowed for a broader search and seizure under a search incident to lawful arrest. The fourth amendment was established to protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the search in this case went far beyond Chimel’s person and the area from within which he might have obtained either a weapon or something that could have been used as evidence against him. Therefore, there was no constitutional justification for exceeding the scope of the authorized search incident to lawful arrest. For this reason, the Court reversed the decision of the lower courts, holding that the scope of the search was unreasonable.