Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Supreme Court rejects Belton

The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, today rejected the broad reading of New York v. Belton453 US 454 (1981) in ruling that a search of an arrestee's car after he was in custody following a traffic stop, was a violation of the 4th Amendment, in Arizona v. Gant556 US ___ (2009). 

Mr. Rodney Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license then handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. Once he was secured, officers searched his car and found cocaine in the pocket of a jacket. The Arizona trial court denied Mr. Gant's motion to suppress stating that the evidence was found during a search incident to an arrest.  Mr. Gant was sentenced to three years in prison.

The Arizona Supreme Court, however, reversed the trial court's decision and distinguished this case from Belton on the grounds that the police no longer had an interest in officer safety or in securing the scene as Mr. Gant was handcuffed in the back of a police car.
"Stare decisis does not require adherence to a broad reading of Belton. The experience of the 28 years since Belton has shown that the generalization and underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded, and blind adherence to its faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches." -- Justice Stevens (Arizona v. Gant)
The U.S. Supreme Court reiterated its holding that warrantless searches are per se unreasonable with few exceptions.

The Court held that police may only search the passenger compartment of a car if they have a reasonable belief that the suspect may access the car at the time of the search or if the car contains evidence of the offense for which the suspect was arrested. In Mr. Gant's case, the Court held that neither exception applied. The Court specifically rejected the state's broad reading of Belton and did not agree that the interests of privacy and law enforcement were balanced with the broader reading.

Justice Stevens was joined by Justices Scalia, Souter, Thomas and Ginsburg.

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