The Fourth Amendment Lives!

On April 21, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant. The issue in this case was whether the fact the police made an arrest of the driver automatically gave them the right to search his car. In New York v. Belton , decided in 1981, the Supreme Court had created a “bright line” rule that allowed police officers to search the entire contents of an automobile pursuant to the arrest of the driver. The justification for that rule was that in order to protect the safety of the arresting officer he needed to be able to insure there was no weapon within the car.

Although in Belton the arresting officer suspected that the car contained marijuana, and he searched an area of the car out of reach of the arrestee, the Supreme Court created a simple rule that the police officer could search the entire contents of a car pursuant to an arrest. In Arizona v. Gant, the arrested had been placed in handcuffs and put in the back seat of the squad car when the police officers conducted the search. The question thus presented to the Court was whether the “bright line” rule established in Belton permitted the police to search the car when the arrestee was, in fact, in no position to reach anything within the car.?

The Supreme Court held, that in order to conduct a search pursuant to Belton the police either have to have an evidentiary basis to believe there is contraband or evidence in the car, or the arrestee has to still have some possibility of gaining access to the car, in order for the police to be able to search the car without a warrant. (It should be noted the police still retain the right to search an arrestee’s car if they impound it.)

What is most heartening about this decision in my opinion is the fact that the current conservative court not only ruled in favor of a Fourth Amendment restriction, there were no rumblings from the Court about abolishing the exclusionary rule. This rule, that illegally seized evidence may not be used in court, has had its share of detractors over the years. In 2006 the Supreme Court in Hudson v. Michigan held that even if the police violate the “knock and announce” rule, the rule that require them to first knock and announce their presence before barging into someone’s house in order to effect an arrest, did not mean that eny evidence procured as a pursuant to the violation had to be supressed (barred from court). The Court held that the exclusion of evidence in this circumstance did not further the goals of the exclusionary rule. I thought this decision would pave the way for the conservative Court to abolish the exclusionary rule but it appears that it remains alive and well for the time being at least.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.