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SCOTUSwiki Preview: Arizona v. Gant

Below, Brittani Head previews Arizona v. Gant, one of the cases to be heard by the Supreme Court next October. Brittani is a rising third year at the University of Virginia Law School and a summer associate at Akin Gump. Check the Arizona v. Gant SCOTUSwiki page throughout the summer for additional updates.

I. Background

United States v. Katz highlights the general parameters of searches under the fourth amendment. Warrantless searches are “per se unreasonable . . . subject only to a few specially established and well-delineated exceptions.” Since appearing in dictum in 1914 in Weeks v. United States, the warrantless search incident to arrest has been one such specially established exception.

The challenge of the next few decades was to make that exception well-delineated. Chimel v. California attempted to clarify several clashing precedents regarding the scope incident to arrest by focusing on the “twin rationales” for a search both of an arrestee and his or her “grab space”: (1) officer safety and (2) destruction of evidence. The twin rationales assume that an arrestee might hastily destroy evidence within his or her grab space or grab a weapon to threaten an officer and escape. Chimel specifically identifies these harms as the reason the exception exists and further insists that the scope of a search incident to arrest remain strictly tied to addressing these harms.

Three later cases expounded upon, and largely expanded, the scope of the search incident to arrest described in Chimel. United States v. Robinson held that the fact of lawful arrest alone establishes the right to conduct a search incident to arrest, even absent the possibility of the suspect reaching for a weapon or destroying evidence. In Robinson, the defendant was arrested for operating a motor vehicle without a license. A search incident to arrest produced heroin. The defendant argued that the crime for which he was arrested did not trigger the twin rationales since “persons arrested for [traffic offenses] are less likely to possess dangerous weapons than those arrested for other crimes.” In disagreeing with this argument, the Court did not discredit the Chimel rationales, but instead focused on the danger of forcing police officers to make ad hoc judgments about “what a court may later decide was the probability in a particular situation that weapons or evidence would in fact be found” in the possession of the arrestee.

The loosening of the tie between the Chimel justifications for a search incident to arrest and the authority to conduct the search itself continued in Belton v. New York. In Belton, a police officer conducted a search incident to arrest of the passenger compartment of a vehicle after the occupants had exited the vehicle. Belton argued that after exiting the car, the passenger compartment was out of his grab space and thus outside the permissible scope of the search incident to arrest. The Court dismissed this argument, relying as they had in Robinson on the need for a bright-line rule to ensure officers did not have to make endangering, split-second decisions at the scene of the arrest. After Belton, an officer who made a “lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile . . . may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the automobile” and containers contained within it. Finally, Thornton v. United States, decided in 2004, extends Belton to all “recent occupants” of vehicles. In Thornton, the police did not make contact with the arrestee till he had exited the vehicle. Rather than emphasize the ability of the arrestee to reach into the car to obtain a weapon or destroy evidence, the Court focused again on the wisdom of not asking police officers to make ad hoc determinations of the dangerousness of a particular arrestee during a street level arrest.

The issue of the permissible scope of a search incident to arrest arose again on August 25, 1999. Two uniformed police officers approached a residence on a tip of narcotics activity. Respondent Rodney Gant answered the door and told the officers that the owners of the residence were not home but would return later in the afternoon. After leaving the residence, the officers performed a records check on Gant that revealed an outstanding warrant for driving on a suspended license. Later that evening, the officers returned to the residence. While the officers were there, Gant drove up, parked his car, and exited the vehicle, at which point a police officer summoned him. Gant walked away from the car and was immediately arrested. The officer searched the passenger compartment of his car, finding a baggie containing cocaine and a gun. During the entire search, Gant was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car, as were two other arrestees also present at the scene. Also on the scene were at least four police officers, but no other persons were around. A police officer testified at the trial that the scene was “secure” while Gant’s car was searched.

Gant’s original motion to suppress the evidence found in the search of the car was denied. He was convicted and appealed. The court of appeals reversed, finding that the evidence discovered during the search incident to arrest should have been suppressed. The Arizona Supreme Court denied review, and the State petitioned to the Supreme Court. The Court remanded for consideration in light of Arizona v. Dean, which was decided in 2003. Dean held that when an arrestee is not a recent occupant of his or her vehicle at the time of arrest, the reasons supporting a warrantless search are not present and the search is therefore not justified. The question on remand to the superior court thus became whether Gant was a recent occupant of the vehicle at the time of his arrest. The superior court found that he was and affirmed his conviction based on the evidence the search incident to arrest produced. Gant appealed again, and the court of appeals again reversed, finding the search not contemporaneous to Gant’s arrest and not otherwise satisfying the Chimel rationales.

On the state’s appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the opinion below but affirmed the judgment in Gant’s favor. In that court’s view, Belton, Robinson, and Thornton were distinguishable because they only addressed the permissible scope of a search incident to arrest. By contrast, this case, it reasoned, presents the threshold question of whether a search of a car incident to arrest is permissible at all when the scene is secure – a question that, in the court’s view, should be resolved by looking at the totality of the circumstances. Because neither of the Chimel rationales were present, and “no other exception to the warrant requirement appears to apply,” the court affirmed the judgment below suppressing the evidence. The dissent countered that both the majority’s rationale and conclusion were directly at odds with Belton, as Belton was clear that the “particularized concerns for officer or safety or preservation of evidence” need not be present at the time of the search. Rather, the search of the car was automatic upon the lawful arrest. The dissent bolstered its perspective by pointing out the similarity in the court’s reasoning with the dissent’s reasoning Belton and by emphasizing the widespread application of Belton by lower courts. Though the dissent acknowledged that the “bright-line rule embraced in Belton has long been criticized and probably merits reconsideration,” it vigorously emphasized the only appropriate forum for this reconsideration was the Supreme Court.

II. Petition For Certiorari

On October 17, 2007, the State of Arizona filed a petition for certiorari presenting a single question: Did the Arizona Supreme Court effectively “overrule” the bright-line rule in Belton by requiring the State to prove in each case, after the fact, that the inherent dangers of officer safety and preservation of evidence actually existed at the time of the arrest? The State made essentially two arguments. First, it argued that the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in Gant conflicted with both the Supreme Court’s precedent in Belton and Thornton and the numerous decisions of federal courts of appeals and state supreme courts. Second, the State argued that the holding in Gant would be antithetical to Belton’s purpose of establishing a bright-line rule. Moreover, the petition posited, an abdication of a bright-line rule would also compromise officer safety by forcing spur-of-the-moment decisions regarding the risk of violence posed by a particular arrestee. Because Gant was a recent occupant of the vehicle at the time of his arrest, the State argued, a straightforward application of Belton should result in the admission of the cocaine against Gant.

In opposing the petition, Gant argued that the relevant question is whether a search incident to arrest can be conducted when the search is not contemporaneous to the arrest and the exigencies of officer safety and preservation of evidence no longer exist because the scene is secure. Gant further argued that the State was misconstruing Belton and Thornton and imputing a bright-line rule where none exists. In Gant’s view, a two-step test should be used to determine the validity of a search incident to arrest. First, was the arrestee a recent occupant of a vehicle; and, second, was the search substantially contemporaneous with the arrest? Whether the search was substantially contemporaneous with the arrest, Gant argued, involves evaluating the presence or absence of the Chimel rationales based on the totality of the circumstances. Because the scene was secure when the search was conducted, the twin rationales of officer safety and destruction of evidence were not threatened. Therefore, the search could not be contemporaneous.

The Court granted review on February 25, 2008 to answer the question: Does the Fourth Amendment require law enforcement officers to demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest in order to justify a warrantless vehicular search incident to arrest conducted after the vehicle’s recent occupants have been arrested and secured?

III. Merits Brief

The State makes three main arguments why the Court should reaffirm the Belton rule and apply it to this case. First, the State argues that the Belton rule is reasonable and that reasonableness is the cornerstone of Fourth Amendment principles. The reasonableness of the Belton rule lies in both its limitation to lawful arrests and the balancing of the individual’s interests against the state’s interests. Moreover, the State argues, when an individual’s reduced expectation of privacy in his or her automobile is balanced against the State’s interest in officer safety and the preservation of evidence, the State’s interests prevail. Second, the State argues that searches incident to arrest have a special need for a bright-line rule because police officers should not be forced to further risk their safety to assess whether the Chimel rationales apply. Clarity not only protects the police officer by granting him or her the authority to conduct a search of the passenger compartment contemporaneously with an arrest, but it also allows the arrestee to know precisely what his or her rights are. Finally, the State points to stare decisis as a reason for upholding and applying the Belton rule. In the State’s view, no special justifications exist for overturning precedent on which lower courts have repeatedly relied for twenty-seven years.

In an amicus brief supporting the State, the United States argues forthrightly that a search of a vehicle incident to a lawful custodial arrest of the vehicle’s recent occupant is lawful even when the arrestee is secured in a patrol car at the time of the search. The United States endorses the State’s view that the Arizona Supreme Court effectively overturned Belton by replacing Belton’s bright line rule with a “totality of the circumstances” test. The brief notes that “this Court has . . . long held that a search incident to arrest is per se reasonable regardless of whether the circumstances of a particular case involve one of the twin rationales for a search.” The United States also notes that the Belton rule already has built-in limitations which are “clear” and “workable” – namely, that the arrestee be a “recent occupant” and the search be “contemporaneous” to the arrest. The government expresses its concern that requiring proof of a threat to officer safety would not only obfuscate Belton’s rule, but would do so in a way that would consequently threaten officer safety by requiring split second decision-making by the arresting officer.

Also filing an amicus brief in support of the petitioner is the Los Angeles County District Attorney. Weighing the limited expectation of privacy of a person who recently occupied a vehicle and who has been arrested based on probable cause against the needs of law enforcement to secure a mobile vehicle, obtain evidence, and seize weapons, the brief strikes the balance in favor of the needs of law enforcement. Florida, in conjunction with twenty-four other states, has also filed an amicus brief that emphasizes stare decisis and urges the Court to uphold Belton’s bright-line rule due to its clarity and the State’s critical interest in protecting law enforcement officers.

The case is now scheduled for oral argument on Tuesday, October 7, 2008. It is the middle of three cases scheduled for oral argument that day.