The Supreme Court ruled that police couldn’t search the car of a person arrested unless the officer’s safety was threatened or there was reason to think the car contained evidence of a crime, reviving a constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.
The court effectively closed a loophole opened in a 1981 opinion that has been widely interpreted to allow police, without a warrant, to search cars—as well as bags or containers within them — when they arrest a driver or passenger.
Tuesday’s 5-4 decision scrambled the court’s typical ideological lineup, with conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joining liberals John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority. Dissenters included liberal leaning Justice Stephen Breyer, conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has frequently cast the court’s deciding vote in other cases.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens cited one of the landmark opinions of the court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, which held that warrantless searches are inherently unreasonable apart from “a few specifically established and narrow exceptions.”
“Officer safety and evidence preservation,” often significant concerns during arrests, fall among those exceptions, Justice Stevens wrote, so police can search areas of the car within reach of the suspect for weapons or evidence. If they turn up evidence of a different crime during such a search, it can be used against the suspect.
In the case before the court, Arizona v. Gant, the suspect, Rodney Gant, arrested for a traffic violation, already had been handcuffed and seated in the back of a squad car. Tucson, Ariz., police then searched Mr. Gant’s car, finding a gun and cocaine. Mr. Gant was convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to three years.
The Arizona Supreme Court threw out the conviction for relying on evidence taken in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which bars “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In upholding the state court, Justice Stevens wrote that Mr. Gant offered no threat to the officers and there was no chance the car contained evidence of the crime for which he was arrested, driving on a suspended license.
The court has tended to give police wide leeway in searching people during vehicle stops. In Tuesday’s opinion, the justices reminded police that such power has limits. Although the privacy interest in one’s car is lower than for a home, it “is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection,” Justice Stevens wrote.
The Fourth Amendment was drafted to deny “police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects,” Justice Stevens wrote.
In dissent, Justice Alito wrote that police had come to assume their blanket power to search cars upon arrest, and that the decision “will cause suppression of evidence gathered in many searches carried out in good-faith reliance on well-settled case law.”
Today, police are “trained to search every car in which someone was arrested, whether it was for a bench warrant or drunk driving,” said Harry Stern, a partner at Rains Lucia Stern in Pleasant Hill, Calif., who represents officers accused of misconduct. “I think the good news from a police practices standpoint is that the ruling gives clear guidance,” said Mr. Stern, also a former police officer.
On Tuesday, the court heard arguments in another Fourth Amendment case in Arizona, in which school employees strip-searched a teenage student mistakenly suspected of hiding prescription medications in her undergarments.
The justices previously have given public-school authorities license to curtail First Amendment rights in an effort to discourage drug use. While troubled by the student’s ordeal, the justices seemed likely to further limit students’ Fourth Amendment rights. A decision in the case, Safford Unified School District v. Redding, is expected before July.