This is a pretty big victory (Arizona v. Gant), and it breathes a tiny bit of air back into the 4th.
The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers.
The court’s 5-4 decision puts new limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after the arrest of a suspect, particularly when the alleged offense is nothing more serious than a traffic violation.
Remember, the whole point of allowing officers to search some parts of the car without a warrant was to protect them from the suspect grabbing a weapon and using it on the officers (kind of hard to do if you’re handcuffed in the back of the patrol car and your weapon is locked in the trunk). Of course, in actuality, it became nothing more than an excuse for officers to go fishing through your personal things in the hopes of finding drugs to charge you with or cash to steal.
As Stevens noted:
“Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation have had their constitutional right to the security of their private effects violated as a result.”
This is interesting:
The justices divided in an unusual fashion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy were in dissent along with Alito.
I have no idea what to make of that.
Scalia said in a separate opinion that he would allow warrantless searches only to look for “evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.” He said he joined Stevens’ opinion anyway because there otherwise would not have been a majority for that view and Alito’s desire to maintain current police practice “is the greater evil.”
Nice to see Scalia saying that the current practice is evil. Of course, if his other idea had actually been possible (only look for evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made), I can’t imagine a situation where police would ignore evidence found that didn’t fit their search parameters (Scalia sometimes seems to have unrealistic notions of what actually happens in the field — still, I’m thrilled he joined the right side in this one.)