On March 17, 2014, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided the State v. Hargis [i], in which one of the issues was whether certain evidence that was seized from a vehicle should be excluded as a violation of the search incident to arrest rule set forth by the United States Supreme Court in the 2009 case of Arizona v. Gant [ii]. As a review, in Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court held that officers may search a vehicle incident to arrest only when (1) the arrestee is unsecured and within reach of the vehicle at the time of the search, or (2) when the officers have a reasonable belief that evidence related to the crime of arrest is located within the vehicle. This is the case that formed the basis of Hargis’ argument in his case.
The facts of Hargis relevant to this issue are that, in 2006, Hargis and a female with whom he lived were charged with manufacturing methamphetamine. Hargis failed to appear in court for trial in 2009 and warrant was issued. A few months later, police received an anonymous tip that Hargis was frequenting the residence where he was previously manufacturing methamphetamine. Police went to that location and found evidence that a person was staying there such as tire tracks and fire. Neighbors also told the police that they had recently seen Hargis at that location in a beige colored truck. As officers did surveillance, they saw a beige truck approach but then turn around and speed away. Officers began canvassing the area fearing that Hargis would flee to North Carolina. During a search of the area, an officer saw:
…the beige truck parked at a convenience store, facing the road with its headlights lit. The officer then saw a man exit the convenience store and enter the truck, sitting in the driver’s seat. Before the man drove away, the officer approached the truck, informed the man that law enforcement personnel were looking for the owner of a similar truck, and asked for his identification. The officer had seen Hargis before, and he believed that the man in the truck was, in fact, Hargis, but he wanted to confirm the identity of the man. At that point, the man opened his wallet, and the officer observed that the wallet contained two photographic identification cards. The man refused, however, to show either identification card to the officer, and he also refused to give his name. The officer asked the man to exit the truck, and he did so, leaving the wallet in the driver’s seat.
The officer then attempted to handcuff the man, but the man became increasingly belligerent and resisted the restraint. Eventually, the officer secured the man in handcuffs, although the man continued to struggle and later had to be put in leg shackles. After the man was secured, the officer reached into the truck, picked up the wallet, and removed the identification cards. One card was a Tennessee driver’s license, and it bore a photograph of Hargis, as well as his name. The other card was a forged Georgia driver’s license, and it bore a photograph of Hargis, but the name of another. Having definitively identified the man in the truck as Hargis, the officer informed Hargis that he was under arrest, both on the outstanding warrant and for obstruction of a law enforcement officer. [iii]
A few minutes later, an investigator arrived on the scene and:
…after consulting with the arresting officer, the investigator looked into the truck and observed two plastic pharmacy bags on the passenger seat in plain view. The investigator entered the truck, opened the bags, and found various items commonly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, including brake cleaner, lighter fluid, and several pharmaceutical products with ephedrine. He then noticed a small, zippered, blue bag in the vicinity of the passenger seat, and he opened it as well. Inside, he found 15 more identification cards, all with the same photograph of Hargis, but each bearing a different name. During this time, Hargis was still present at the scene, although he had been secured in a patrol car. [iv]
This evidence, led officers to obtain a search warrant for Hargis’ residence and that search warrant yielded additional evidence that he was still involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Hargis filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his truck during the search incident to arrest by the officer and the investigator. The trial court disagreed and denied the motion. This was used against him at trial, and he was convicted by a jury. Later, the Court of Appeals of Georgia held that the evidence should have been suppressed. The state appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Hargis first argued that, when the officer arrested him for the outstanding warrant, the officer did not have the authority under Gant to enter the truck and seize his wallet and search it for identification. He said this was because he was handcuffed and could not access the vehicle. He also argued that he was not told he was under arrest until after the officer looked in his wallet and saw the positive identification.
The court first noted that, while a search incident to arrest may not typically come before the arrest, in this case, the officer had probable cause to arrest Hargis for the outstanding warrant at the time he told him to get out of the truck. [v] The court said that just because the officer wanted to be thorough and further identify Hargis before telling him he was under arrest does not change the fact that probable cause existed when he told him to exit the truck. The court said, that when an officer curtails a person’s freedom of movement based upon probable cause to arrest that person, the officer is entitled to search that person incident to arrest at that moment, even if it is before telling the person they are under arrest.
The court also noted that the wallet was on Hargis’ person when the officer first approached Hargis in the truck. Hargis held the wallet in his hand during the interaction with the officer as he was in the truck. It was not until the officer asked him to exit the vehicle that Hargis placed the wallet on the seat of the truck. The court then explained that, under this type of circumstances, the police could consider the wallet “as an effect on the person of arrestee at the time of the arrest.” [vi]
Therefore, since the arrest was based upon the probable cause, and since the wallet could be considered in the possession of the arrestee’s person at the time of the arrest, the retrieval of the wallet from the seat of the truck and its subsequent search for identification were lawful under the Fourth Amendment.
It is important that the seizure and search of the wallet were lawful under the Fourth Amendment because that is what provided the legal support for the search of the truck incident to arrest by the investigator a few minutes later. Particularly, Hargis, other argument against the admissibility of the evidence found in the truck was that he was secured in a police car at the time of the search and it is not reasonable to believe there is evidence related to the crime of arrest (being a wanted person and obstruction) in the truck. However, the court noted, importantly, when the original arresting officer found the false identification card in Hargis’ wallet, the officer and the investigator also had probable cause to arrest Hargis for possession of a false identification document. The court, in upholding the investigators search incident to arrest of the truck under Gant, stated
Before the investigator entered the truck to search the pharmacy bags, the investigator knew not only that Hargis had a false identification document, but also that Hargis was under indictment for crimes relating to the manufacture of methamphetamine, that Hargis had returned earlier that day to the location at which he previously had been involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine, that signs of recent activity had been observed at that location, that the bags in plain view were pharmacy bags, and that persons involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine often use false identification documents to purchase items used in the manufacturing process from multiple pharmacies. Having probable cause to arrest Hargis for possession of a false identification document, the investigator had reason to believe that evidence of that crime might be found in the vehicle in which Hargis had been arrested only minutes earlier. Accordingly, under Gant, he was authorized to enter the vehicle to search the pharmacy bags. In the course of that search, he found the zippered bag, and he was authorized to open it as well, insofar as it was reasonable to believe that it too might contain evidence relevant to the crime. See Gant, 556 U. S. at 343 (III). [vii]
As such, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the search of the truck incident to arrest as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Arizona v. Gant.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[ii] 556 U.S. 332 (2009)
[iii] Hargis, S13G0645 at 12-13
[iv] Id. at 16
[v] Id. at 14
[vi] Id. at 15
[vii] Id. 17-19