SCOTUS Overrules NY v Belton and Limits Auto Searches

Until very recently, the United States Supreme Court had been engaged in a pattern of reducing the amount of privacy that an individual had in a motor vehicle to practically nil. Because of the inherent mobility in most vehicles, the Court declared that the warrant requirement did not apply to a motor vehicle. The Court extended this rationale to discrete items in a motor vehicle such as purses in brief cases. In New York v Belton, the high court extended the protective sweep rationale of its earlier ruling in Terry v Ohio to the motor vehicle. Any place a motorist or passenger could theoretically lunge for a weapon could be searched with this protective sweep, even if the motorist or passenger had been separated from the vehicle.. In Arizona v Gant, the Court overturned Belton in a 4-1-4 decision with Justice Scalia offering a critical view of the entire “officer safety rationale” used to justify these warrantless searches. Arizona v. Gant, 07-542.Dividing 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police may conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to an arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or the officers have reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”The ruling directly limits New York v. Belton,. In Belton, the Court held that “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment.” The Court affirmed the Arizona Supreme Court ruling for the defendant, Rodney Gant, on whom police found cocaine during an arrest for driving with a suspended license. The state court held that Gant could not have reached his car during the search and posed no safety threat to the officers, making a vehicle search unreasonable under the “reaching-distance rule.” applied in Belton.Justice Stevens’s opinion for the majority, which was joined by an uncommon coalition of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, held that stare decisis cannot justify unconstitutional police practice, especially in a case — such as this one — that can clearly be distinguished on its facts from Belton and its progeny.In a concurring opinion, Justice Scalia disparaged that line of cases as “badly reasoned” with a “fanciful reliance” upon the officer safety rule. Justice Scalia was clearly the swing vote in the case, explaining that a “4-to-1-to-4 opinion that leaves the governing rule uncertain” would be “unacceptable.” In his view, the “charade of officer safety” in Belton, Chimel, and Thornton v. United States (extending Belton to all “recent occupants” of a vehicle) should be abandoned in favor of the rule that the majority ultimately adopts in its opinion.By contrast, the dissenting justices — Justice Breyer, who wrote his own dissenting opinion, and Justice Alito, whose dissent was joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and was joined in part by Justice Breyer — would have adhered rigorously to stare decisis principles to maintain Belton’s “bright-line rule.” The dissenters predicted that the Court’s decision will lead to the unnecessary suppression of evidence and confusion by law enforcement officers.