7/26/2007Arizona Supreme Court Restricts Police Car Searches
The Arizona Supreme Court rules that police must obtain a warrant to search a car after an arrested motorist is secured.
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled yesterday that being pulled over and arrested by police is not sufficient justification for them to start searching your automobile.
The case revolved around an August 25, 1999 incident where two Tuscon police officers who had a "tip" that drug activity took place at a certain location. Police went there and questioned Rodney Gant who opened the door of the house that was under suspicion. After leaving, the officers looked up Gant's record and found that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving under a suspended license.
The officers waited for Gant to return to the house and arrested him after he parked his car safely in the driveway. Gant was placed in the back of a squad car within minutes and without incident. Police then proceeded to search Gant's car where they found a small plastic bag containing cocaine.
Gant's case has bounced back and forth through the judicial system all the way to the nation's highest court. A trial first found Gant guilty, but an appeals court overturned the decision saying there was no urgent need to search the car without first obtaining a warrant. The US Supreme Court vacated this decision in 2003 and ordered a re-hearing in light of a related Arizona Supreme Court ruling. The trial court did so and found Gant guilty again because he was a "recent occupant" of the vehicle, and the appeals court reversed again saying the search was not contemporaneous with the arrest. Prosecutors appealed the case to the Arizona Supreme Court.
"We must determine whether officer safety or the preservation of evidence, the rationales that excuse the warrant requirement for searches incident to arrest, justified the warrantless search of Gant's car," Justice Rebecca White Berch wrote for the court. "Neither rationale supports the search here."
The court found that a man locked and handcuffed in the back of a patrol car can neither threaten police nor remove evidence from another automobile while surrounded by four police officers. The officers also had seen nothing that would have provided probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband.
"In this technological age, when warrants can be obtained within minutes, it is not unreasonable to require that police officers obtain search warrants when they have probable cause to do so to protect a citizen's right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches," the court concluded. "The evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful search must therefore be suppressed."
The full text of the decision is available in an 75k PDF file at the source link below.