Arizona v. Gant

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May a law enforcement officer conduct an automobile search as an incident to all lawful arrests, or must the officer reasonably fear for his own safety or for the integrity of the evidence before searching the automobile?

Oral argument: 
October 7, 2008
Court below: 

Police arrested Rodney Gant for driving with a suspended license. During a warrantless search of Gant’s car incident to his arrest, officers found a weapon and cocaine. Gant moved to suppress this evidence; the court denied his motion, and he was convicted of possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Gant claims the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because he was arrested for an unrelated charge and because neither officer safety nor the integrity of the evidence was imperiled. The State of Arizona argues that the Court should adopt a clear, bright-line rule that automatically permits officers to conduct a vehicle search contemporaneous to an arrest. The outcome of this case will affect law enforcement officers’ conduct during motor vehicle stops and accompanying arrests and vehicle searches.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does the Fourth Amendment require law enforcement officers to demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest in order to justify a warrantless vehicular search incident to arrest conducted after the vehicle’s recent occupants have been arrested and secured?


On August 25, 1999, two uniformed police officers responded to a report of narcotics activity at a house in Tucson, Arizona. Respondent Rodney Gant told the officers that the owner was not home but would return later.

Later that day, the police ran a records check and found that Gant had an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. The police officers returned to the house later in the day; while they were there, Gant pulled into the driveway, parked, and got out of his car. As he exited his car, a police officer “summoned” him and Gant approached the officer. The officer arrested, handcuffed, and locked Gant in the back of the patrol car, where police supervised him for the remainder of the incident. At least four officers were present, the area was secure, and two people previously arrested at the house were already handcuffed and locked in the backs of patrol cars. After locking Gant in the back of a patrol car, the officers searched his car, uncovering a weapon and a plastic baggie of cocaine.

Arizona charged Gant with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia in Arizona state court. Gant moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car, arguing that the search and seizure violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Supreme Court of the United States has held that a “search incident to arrest”—a search of the arrested person and the “area within the person’s immediate control”—is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Under some circumstances, a search incident to arrest may include the vehicle that the arrested person recently occupied. The trial court denied Gant’s motion to suppress, and Gant was convicted on both charges.

Gant appealed his conviction to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which held that the evidence should have been suppressed and reversed Gant’s convictions. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Arizona’s petition for certiorari, vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, and remanded for reconsideration taking account of the intervening 2003 Arizona Supreme Court decision State v. Dean. State v. Dean held that police had no authority to perform a warrantless vehicle search incident to arrest if the arrested person was not a recent occupant. After an evidentiary hearing, a state court found that Gant was a recent occupant, permitting the search of his vehicle as an incident to his arrest. Gant again appealed, and the Arizona Court of Appeals again reversed, this time stating the search was unlawful because it “was not contemporaneous with [Gant’s] arrest and did not satisfy the rationales” of protecting officers and evidence. Arizona then appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, which affirmed the Court of Appeals’ judgment and suppressed the evidence from the search of Gant’s car. Arizona appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted its petition for certiorari on February 25, 2008.


The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Generally, police must obtain a warrant before searching a person or his property. The United States Supreme Court has held that a police officer’s search of an arrestee and “the ‘area within his immediate control,’” otherwise known as a search incident to arrest, provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In Chimel v. California, the Supreme Court said that a search incident to arrest is reasonable because of the “twin exigency rationales:” such a search helps secure officer safety and prevents the destruction of evidence. The Supreme Court reasoned that if an arresting officer had to obtain a warrant prior to performing a search incident to arrest, the arrestee might seize a weapon or destroy nearby evidence. In New York v. Belton, the Court further held that officers who validly arrest a vehicle’s occupant can, as a “contemporaneous” incident to arrest, search the vehicle’s passenger compartment. More recently, in Thornton v. United States, the Court interpreted Belton’s “bright-line” rule to permit warrantless vehicular searches incident to arrest of both occupants and recent occupants.

The State of Arizona, the petitioner, argues that police officers did not violate Gant’s Fourth Amendment rights by searching his vehicle incident to his arrest. Arizona contends that the Fourth Amendment, under Belton’s bright-line rule, does not require actual danger to the officer or the evidence to perform a vehicular search incident to arrest. Rather, Arizona argues that, under Belton and Thornton, the arrest itself establishes the officers’ authority to search the vehicle after arresting and securing recent occupants.

The respondent, Rodney Gant, argues that the search of his vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights because, at the time of the search, he was secured in a supervised patrol car, with no possible access to his car, and therefore neither the safety of the officers nor the integrity of the evidence was in jeopardy. Gant does not dispute that police officers have the right to perform warrantless vehicular searches incident to a lawful arrest under Belton. Instead, Gant argues that Belton’s bright-line rule does not apply because the search in his case does not meet the underlying exigencies laid out by the Supreme Court in Chimel.

Gant claims that Belton’s bright-line rule applies only when Chimel’s twin exigencies are met: an officer must prove that there is a threat to either safety or to on-site evidence to justify a search after arresting and securing the vehicle’s recent occupants. Applying this rationale, Gant argues that Belton’s bright-line rule only applies in cases where an arrestee’s recently occupied passenger compartment is within the arrestee’s immediate control. According to Gant, Thornton supports this limited application of Belton’s bright-line rule. Gant contends that because his vehicle was not within his immediate control, a search of his vehicle could not have satisfied Chimel’s twin exigencies. Because officers had secured Gant before searching his vehicle, which was outside his immediate control, Chimel’s twin exigencies were not met, and the police were not authorized to search his car.

In addition, Arizona argues that a rule permitting officers to search arrestees’ vehicles’ passenger compartments without evaluating threats to safety and evidence is reasonable. Arizona first argues that Belton’s bright-line rule appropriately favors protecting police and preserving evidence over the “reduced expectation of privacy” that an arrestee can hope to preserve. . It further contends that it is reasonable for an officer to secure the arrestee in accordance with procedure before searching the arrestee’s vehicle, and that doing so should not prevent an officer from performing a search contemporaneous to the arrest. Secondly, Arizona maintains that Belton’s bright-line rule is reasonable because the scope of its exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement is limited. . Arizona cites three important limitations: (1) only the passenger compartment of an automobile may be searched; (2) that compartment may be searched only upon the arrest of a recent occupant; and, (3) only searches made contemporaneously to the arrest are permissible.

Arizona further argues that a bright-line rule is beneficial because it provides officers with clear guidance about when they may search a vehicle incident to arrest. Arizona maintains that a bright-line rule relieves officers from having to make complicated case-by-case analyses to determine if the Fourth Amendment permits a warrantless search. Arizona contends that a rule requiring officers to make case-by-case decisions would lead to ambiguity for arrestees, officers, and courts, who must retrospectively apply the rule to determine if a search violated the Fourth Amendment.

Gant argues that the authority granted to officers to search arrestees’ vehicles pursuant to Arizona’s interpretation of Belton would be unreasonably broad and essentially without limits. Gant argues that the requirement that such a search be “incident” to an arrest necessarily requires some “nexus,” or intersection, between the search and Chimel’s twin exigencies. In this case, Gant contends, no such nexus exists. Gant further contends that any exigencies that Arizona claims exist are “illusory.” Under the facts of this case, Gant argues that after officers secured him, neither the officers nor any evidence was in danger.Gant argues that, secured as he was, he posed no threat, and that if the police had concerns about unseen third parties, they should have performed a “protective sweep” of the area, an option of which the Court approved in earlier cases. Gant also argues that there was no reason for the police to search Gant’s vehicle incident to arrest because such a search could not have revealed evidence pertinent to his crime of driving on a suspended license.

Arizona argues that the Supreme Court should not overrule its decisions in Belton and Thornton by ruling in favor of Gant. Arizona supports its position by relying on the principle of stare decisis under which courts that have already decided the issue in question generally follow the prior ruling. Under this principle, the Supreme Court will not depart from established precedent unless it finds some “special justification.” When deciding whether such a special justification exists, the Supreme Court evaluates four factors. Arizona claims that none of these factors are met in this case. Arizona argues that “Belton’s bright-line rule is workable.” Furthermore, for twenty-seven years, officers have applied the rule established in Belton. It further claims that “no principle of law” has arisen that makes Belton obsolete. Finally, Arizona argues that the facts surrounding searches incident to arrest have not changed enough to justify abandoning Belton’s bright-line rule. Besides failing to meet the Court’s four considerations, Arizona claims that overruling Belton would also undermine the general rule regarding searches incident to arrest established in Chimel.

Gant argues that affirming a broad interpretation of Belton is not justified for several reasons. Firstly, Gant contends that the assumptions underlying the rule in Belton are empirically false. In support of this, Gant cites case law suggesting that the notion that the interior of a recent occupant’s vehicle is within the control of the recent occupant is a “considerable overgeneralization.” Secondly, Gant suggests that the benefits of reliance on Belton’s bright-line rule are less significant than Arizona claims.

Finally, Gant argues that warrantless vehicular searches incident to arrest are not per se reasonable. Gant further supports his argument by citing Supreme Court opinions indicating that searching an individual’s automobile constitutes a substantial invasion of privacy and by distinguishing between the propriety of searching an arrestee and searching his possessions. Gant argues that officers will still need to conduct a case-by-case analysis even if Arizona’s position is accepted, but that officers would then need to determine whether the arrestee was a “recent occupant” of the vehicle or whether the search was a “contemporaneous incident.”


Must a police officer actually fear for his safety or believe that evidence is in danger of destruction before he searches an arrestee’s automobile without a warrant? In New York v. Belton, the U.S. Supreme Court established a “bright-line” rule that when an officer lawfully arrests a vehicle’s occupant, “he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the [vehicle’s] passenger compartment.” Arizona v. Gant gives the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to define more clearly the situations where the Fourth Amendment permits police officers to conduct a warrantless automobile search incident to arrest.

The State of Arizona (“Arizona”) argues that Belton established an easily-implemented “bright-line” rule that protects officers and evidence, and which struck an appropriate balance between the individual’s right to privacy and the government’s need for effective law enforcement. Gant, on the other hand, argues that Belton requires danger to officers or evidence to permit a warrantless search of an arrestee’s vehicle under the Fourth Amendment. .

Law enforcement advocates worry that a decision adopting Gant’s position would require police to make on-the-spot decisions about whether the Fourth Amendment permits an automobile search in arrest situations. ; Most police officers are not familiar enough with constitutional law to analyze arrest situations from a Fourth Amendment standpoint. . Requiring officers to perform a Fourth Amendment analysis during an arrest, rather than providing a standardized rule, could create uncertainty. By offering clear standards, bright-line rules for searches allow officers to respect citizens’ civil rights while providing effective law enforcement.

Amici National Association of Police Organizations (“NAPO”) supporting Arizona and the National Association of Federal Defenders (“NAFD”) supporting Gant both raise concerns about the implications for officer safety of automatic vehicle searches incident to arrest. Amicus NAPO argues that a decision for Gant, by requiring case-by-case analysis in the field, would worsen already dangerous situations. Law enforcement is a hazardous profession: according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 186 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2007, representing a 28% increase from 2006 and the highest number of police fatalities in 18 years (excluding 2001). In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that 42% of killings and assaults of on-duty officers in 2006 occurred during traffic stops or arrests. However, NAFD, an amicus supporting Gant, argues that laws allowing automatic warrantless searches of arrestees’ vehicles incident to arrest do not increase officer safety or protect evidence. The nine states expressly rejecting automatic vehicle search rules had less frequent attacks on officers during vehicle stops and pursuits than states allowing these searches in thirteen of the last fifteen years. Furthermore, assaults on officers during traffic stops did not increase in four states that eliminated automatic vehicle searches.

NAFD also argues that officers are fully able to protect the integrity of evidence without conducting an otherwise unnecessary search. For instance, officers who secure a vehicle as part of a crime scene can protect evidence by controlling access to the vehicle. Amicus NAPO counters that a decision for Gant would further restrict officers’ ability to investigate crimes successfully. Because state laws, police department regulations, and other Fourth Amendment doctrines limiting evidence available at trial already restrict officers’ investigations, further restriction is not only unnecessary, but also makes it even harder for police to catch and convict guilty individuals.

In addition to concerns about officer safety and the integrity of the evidence, there is a concern that a decision for Gant could cause violations of ordinary individuals’ privacy rights during routine traffic stops. In particular, amicus American Civil Liberties Union sees potential for widespread deprivations of drivers’ constitutional rights if police may search a vehicle simply because an arrestee was a recent occupant at the time of arrest.

The practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant show the tension between law enforcement protection and practices and personal privacy and autonomy. A decision for either Arizona or Gant will impact the method and extent of police searches.


This case demonstrates that the scope of exception to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against governmental searches and seizures relating to searches incident to arrest is still unclear. Both parties address Belton’s bright-line rule to the Fourth Amendment allowing warrantless vehicular searches incident to a lawful arrest. If the Supreme Court adopts Arizona’s position on Belton, police will have broad discretion to search the vehicle of any arrestee, subject only to the limitation that the arrestee was a “recent occupant” of the vehicle. A decision for Gant, on the other hand, would require an officer to reasonably fear for his safety or the integrity of the evidence before he could search an arrestee’s vehicle without a warrant. In either case, the Supreme Court’s decision may further define the extent of police authority to perform warrantless vehicular searches incident to a lawful arrest.

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