I had always thought that the Supreme Court’s ruling in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) was a little much. As of today, I guess they’ve finally agreed with me.
Those who have had the pleasure of an American criminal procedure course will remember Belton as the source of the “search-incident-to-arrest” corollary to the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s general rule against unwarranted searches and seizures. Simply put, the Belton rule permits the passenger compartment of a suspect’s vehicle to be searched on-site at any time after a lawful arrest without a warrant.
This exception is usually justified on the grounds of officer safety, and that’s understandable: we want to be sure that police officers are able to quickly locate and lock down any weapons that might be at hand during the course of an arrest. But Belton’s unnecessarily broad wording has openly permitted searches that could never reasonably be explained that way. Realistically, unless you’ve collared yourself a Jedi,1 there’s really no conceivable way that a handcuffed suspect locked in a police cruiser could possibly get to anything in his car that could be used to hurt you, and that seems to be the point at which most of these searches are performed. The “search-incident-to-arrest” element of the automobile exception has always seemed like a problem disguised as a solution to me, and a whole pile of academics and other people far smarter than me have been trying to get the Court to re-examine it for decades.
The facts aren’t all that important, but I should note that the defendant had been arrested for nothing more than driving on a suspended license and was safely in custody by the time that his car was searched and a small quantity of cocaine found. During the course of the hearing on the motion to suppress brought prior to trial, the arresting officer assured the Court that the search had been conducted under these circumstances “[b]ecause the law says we can do it.”
Well, not anymore. Stevens has upheld the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that this search was un-Constitutional, and that Belton was significantly overbroad. Here’s my favorite part:
The experience of the 28 years since we decided Belton has shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded. We now know that articles inside the passenger compartment are rarely“within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach,’” and blind adherence to Belton’s faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches. The doctrine of stare decisis [Latin, I believe, for "What part of that last ruling didn't you understand?"] does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations.
Best I can tell from my first read of Gant, Stevens has limited Belton to situations in which the suspect either has access to his vehicle at the time of search and/or the search would yield evidence directly relating to the crime for which the suspect was arrested.
Sounds about right to me, but where does this leave us? As Scalia grumbles in his mostly-reasonable concurrence, Stevens isn’t exactly overruling anything3 but only cinching Belton up a few notches. I kind of agree with Scalia4 that the best course of action would really be to ditch (rather than refine) Belton and its progeny altogether and go with an alternative rule: vehicle searches after arrest may only be conducted when seeking evidence toward the crime for which the arrestee had already been arrested. This logic in this is kind of inarguable on its face: If an officer already had probable cause to arrest a driver for certain crimes, why shouldn’t there be probable cause to search the same person’s immediate area after arrest for evidence5 of that crime? But I’m not totally sold on this, as it still has significant potential for abuse and is almost certainly motivated by Scalia’s well-known career hatred for the exclusionary rule.
But, still: good enough for now. Gant is an encouraging and long-overdue development in Fourth Amendment caselaw, and I’m happy to see it.
- And if so: How? [↩]
- Stevens sat out Belton, instead signing on to a concurrence that was obviously hesitant to endorse it. [↩]
- The Alito/Roberts/et al dissent disagrees, arguing that there is “no doubt” that Gant overrules Belton, and dissents almost entirely on stare decisis grounds. [↩]
- As combinations of words go, I’ve probably uttered this phrase about as often as I have “Please pass the mushy peas, because they are delicious.” [↩]
- Drugs and/or guns, 95% of the time [↩]