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Supreme Court Reexamines Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 78 Issue: 7 Dated: July 2009 Pages: 22-31
Richard G. Schott J.D.
Date Published
July 2009
10 pages
This article reviews a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and its impact on the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement.
The U.S. Supreme Court has provided clarification to law enforcement on when vehicle searchers are allowed incident to arrest. In the recent Arizona versus Gant, the Court held that police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies. The second justification outlined in Gant for conducting a warrantless search of a vehicle's interior compartment contemporaneous with the arrest of one of its occupants is to preserve evidence of the offense of the arrest. This article recounts the evolution of the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement; discusses how the bright-line rule for searching vehicles following arrests developed; and analyzes how the recent Arizona v. Gant case has changed the legal landscape in this context. Law enforcement officers must be familiar with the current state of the law regarding searches incident to arrest. 61 endnotes