April 21, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Arizona v. Gant

On April 21, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant, No. 07-542.

Rodney J. Gant was arrested for driving without a valid driver's license. After he had been secured in the police car, the car he had been driving was searched without a warrant, and a bag of cocaine was found. Gant was charged with possession with intent to sell. His motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the search of his car was denied, and he was convicted. But the Supreme Court of Arizona reversed, holding that the warrantless search was unreasonable.

The Supreme Court affirmed the reversal of Gant's conviction. In doing so, the Court significantly narrowed the rules governing automobile searches incident to an arrest first announced in Belton v. New York, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), holding that, contrary to the broad reading of Belton that has been followed by many lower courts, an automobile may not always be searched without a warrant just because one of its occupants has been arrested. Rather, a warrantless search of an automobile may be conducted only in two circumstances: (1) when the arrestee has not been physically secured and therefore might be able to obtain a weapon from the car or destroy evidence in it, or (2) when it is reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to the crime for which the arrest was made may be found in the car.

In Gant's case, neither of these circumstances was present; he had been handcuffed and locked in a police car before the search was made, and his car was unlikely to contain evidence relevant to the offense for which he had been arrested—driving without a license.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice Scalia joined in the opinion of the Court and also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy joined and Justice Breyer joined in part. Justice Breyer also filed a dissenting opinion.

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