More on Arizona vs. Gant:
Exclusionary Rule ~ 2011 US v. Davis (Supreme Court) Jack Ryan 6-17-2011
Effect of AZ v. Gant on Past Searches Incident to Arrest (11th Cir. U.S. v. Davis): Brian Batterton, 5-11-2010
Final Case Judgement and What it Means to Law Enforcement: Jack Ryan, 4-21-2009
Additional Commentary and Misinterpretations: Jack Ryan, 4-23-2009
Inventory Searches of Motor Vehicles: Jack Ryan, 4-30-2009

On April 21, 2009, the United States Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant,i which significantly changed the rules relating to vehicle searches incident to the arrest of vehicle occupants.  In that case, the Supreme Court held that an officer who makes an arrest for a traffic offense can only search the vehicle incident to that arrest if (1) at the time of the search, the arrestee is unsecured and within arms reach of the passenger compartment, or (2) it is reasonable to believe that evidence related to the crime of arrest is located within the passenger compartment.

This holding in Gant, will have an impact on not only future cases, but also on cases that are anywhere in the criminal justice process ranging from a motion to suppress to an appeal.  For example, in the United States v. Majette, ii on June 5, 2009, a police officer in Virginia conducted a traffic stop on Majette for a window tint violation under Virginia statute.  Majette admitted to the officer that his driver’s license was suspended, and the officer confirmed this via a driver’s license status check through the dispatcher.  The officer then arrested Majette for driving with a suspended license and placed him, handcuffed, in the back seat of his police car.  He then searched the passenger compartment of Majette’s car incident to arrest.  During the search, the officer found approximately 23 grams of cocaine, a small amount of marijuana, and digital scales.

On February 22, 2007, Majette was indicted under federal statute for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.  On October 23, 2007, the district court denied Majette’s motion to suppress after holding that the arrest was lawful under Virginia law; therefore, the court held that the evidence was seized during a search incident to a lawful arrest.  The court, in holding that the search was a lawful search incident to arrest, relied on New York v. Belton,iii which over the years has been interpreted to have authorized countless similar searches.  Majette eventually went to trial and was convicted of the charge.

Majette appealed his conviction and the denial of the motion to suppress to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  On January 30, 2009, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that Arizona v. Gant, which was pending before the Supreme Court, had similar facts and would likely control the outcome of this case.  Then, on April 30, 2009, only nine days after the holding in Gant, the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion in Majette.

The Fourth Circuit was bound to the holding in Gant which, to review, authorized a search of a passenger compartment incident to the lawful arrest of a vehicle occupant only when (1) the arrested vehicle occupant is unsecured and within arms reach of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or (2) it is reasonable to believe that evidence related to the crime of arrest is located within the passenger compartment.  In examining the facts of this case, the Fourth Circuit noted that, at the time of the search, Majette was handcuffed and secured in the back seat of the police car.  Thus, the first exception in Gant was not met because the passenger compartment was not within the reach of Majette at the time of the search.  In considering the second exception in Gant, the court noted that the crime for which Majette was arrested, particularly driving with a suspended license, was the same crime for which Gant was arrested.  In Gant, the Supreme Court held that it was not reasonable to believe that evidence of the crime of suspended license, would be found in the passenger compartment.   Because neither search exception from Gant was met in this case, the Fourth Circuit vacated Majette’s conviction and sent the case back to the district court for a new trial.  The new trial would have to take place after the court grants the motion to suppress, based on the reasons above; therefore, it is unlikely that Majette will be re-tried.


Since Gant’s impact is just beginning to be realized, it is important to review exactly what officers can do upon the arrest of a vehicle occupant.  Some basic rules are as follows:

  • If an officer makes an arrest and an unsecured arrestee is within arms reach of the passenger compartment, the passenger compartment could be searched incident to arrest.iv  It is not recommend that officers engage in lapses in “officer safety” in order to justify searches.  ‘Therefore, continue with the other justifications below.
  • If an officer makes an arrest and it is reasonable to believe that evidence related to the crime of arrest could be found in the passenger compartment, it can be searched incident to that lawful arrest.v
  • If an officer has probable cause to believe that evidence of a particular crime is located in a vehicle, the officer can search the vehicle without a warrant, based upon the motor vehicle exception to the search warrant  Please note that some states may be more restrictive than the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires.
  • If an officer reasonably believes that a vehicle occupant is dangerous and may gain immediate control of a weapon from a vehicle, the officer may conduct a limited search of the passenger compartment, only looking in places that a weapon could be hidden.  This is commonly called a “vehicle frisk.”vii
  • If an officer has a lawful justification to impound an automobile, the officer may conduct an inventory of the contents of the vehicle and all containers therein, pursuant to department policy.viii  Any contraband or evidence observed during this inventory may be seized and should be admissible in court.  The rationale for the inventory is (1) to protect the owner’s property, (2) to protect the police from potential danger due to the contents of the vehicle, and (3) to protect the police from false allegations of theft.ix  Please note that some states may require police to first attempt some other disposition of the arrestee’s vehicle prior to impoundment.  Individual state rules should be followed


i 556 U.S. ____ (2009)

ii No. 08-4427, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 9267 (Decided April 30, 2009)

iii 453 U.S. 454 (1981)(holding that when an officer makes a lawful arrest of a vehicle occupant, the officer may search the interior passenger compartment and any containers immediately accessible therein.)(Authors note:  This case, until Gant, has been often interpreted to authorize the search incident to arrest of the passenger compartment even when the arrestee is handcuffed in the backseat of a police car.)

iv Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. ____ (2009)

v See Thornton v. U.S., 541 U.S. 615 (2004)

vi See Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925); Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970); U.S. v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982); Florida v. Myers, 466 U.S. 380 (1984); Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938 (1996); Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465 (1999)

vii Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)

viii South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976)

ix Id.

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