Arizona v. Gant: heightening a person's expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle following searches incident to arrest.

Author:Beck, Jeffrey R.

In Arizona v. Gant, a five-four decision of the United States Supreme Court essentially overturned a bright-line rule established in New York v. Belton. The rule governed the permissible area where law enforcement was entitled to search following the arrest of a motor vehicle occupant. The rule provided guidance to law enforcement personnel and the courts for twenty-eight years. By changing its reading of Belton, the Court, in essence, is now providing greater protections to individuals who were arrested from a motor vehicle than to those who were arrested from a residence. The holding in Gant requires both law enforcement and the courts to retreat to a case-by-case analysis and leaves all without the guidance provided by a bright-line rule.


    On April 21, 2009, the United States Supreme Court, by a five-four vote, narrowed the longstanding bright-line rule established in New York v. Belton. (1) Belton created a bright-line rule allowing law enforcement officers to search the entire passenger compartment of a motor vehicle incident to the arrest of any motor vehicle occupants. (2) In Arizona v. Gant, (3) the United States Supreme Court essentially vacated the twenty-eight year holding from Belton and negated the bright-line rule. (4) Law enforcement officers easily understood and applied the rule when dealing with situations containing both the arrest and motor vehicle variables. (5)

    Law enforcement officers and the courts used the bright-line rule to prevent the myriad possibilities law enforcement encountered in dealing with motor vehicle stops. (6) Law enforcement lost a significant tool for motor vehicle searches when the generalized blanket ability to search after an occupants arrest was negated. (7) Officers must now choose between the ability to search a motor vehicle under the Gant criterion or utilize what are considered generally accepted officer safety practices. (8) The Gant Court rationale in overruling Belton is fundamentally flawed. (9) Although the decision explicitly recognized the unique circumstances surrounding motor vehicles, it limited the warrantless search to items related to the offense which led to the arrest. (10) The absence of a bright-line rule will leave law enforcement officers without an easy rule to follow and will thereby resurrect the case-by-case analysis that Belton strived to cure. (11)

    The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents searches that are unreasonable and requires that searches be conducted under the cover of a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate, particularly listing the places to be searched and the things or items to be seized. (12) The United States Supreme Court recognized certain exceptions to the warrant requirement, one of which is search incident to arrest. (13) Over the Years, courts have dealt with searches incident to arrest in differing contexts. (14) Belton settled the issue for searches involving a motor vehicle occupant. (15) The Court recognized a rule that allowed for a search of a motor vehicle's entire interior compartment following the arrest of one of the vehicle's occupants. (16) The Belton holding was the precedential case during its twenty-eight year tenure. (17) In 2004, the Court reviewed and expanded the rule in Thornton v. United States. (18) In Thornton, the Court upheld the constitutionality of post-arrest motor vehicle searches in situations where the suspect had not previously occupied the vehicle. (19)

    The Court in Belton intended to alleviate the case-by-case analysis that was taking place. (20) Belton established a quintessential bright-line rule which law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judicial officers embraced as having provided a single, easy to follow, and workable solution to a multitude of different situations. (21) The decision from Gant will cause lower courts and potentially the United States Supreme Court to again address on a case-by-case basis the multitude of variables that existed prior to Belton's creation of a definitive rule. (22)

    This note will first look at the facts and procedure surrounding Gant and how the Court reached its decision. (23) Next, background is provided on both the protections of the Fourth Amendment and recognition of the pertinent exceptions to the Fourth Amendment s warrant requirement. (24) Coverage of the facts and background from the initial Belton decision will show the rationale behind the creation of the bright-line rule. (25) An examination and review of Thornton reveals the expansion of the bright-rule. (26) Then a justification is made for the necessity of a bright-line rule. (27) An analysis is performed to show how the majority's theory is flawed and is not simply a narrowing of the bright-line rule, but an outright reversal of the Belton and Thornton holdings. (28) Next, an explanation is provided showing how Gant reallocates the privacy expectation interests and now places the motor vehicle above a residence. (29) Finally, this note looks at the implications of Gant on the practices and operations of law enforcement officers who no longer have a workable rule to follow. (30)


    Rodney Joseph Gant was arrested on August 25, 1999, (31) for unlawful possession of a controlled substance (32) and possession of drug paraphernalia (33) following a search of his vehicle incident to his arrest. (34) The issue between Gant and law enforcement officers began when the Tucson, Arizona Police received information that narcotics activity was taking place at a residence within the city. (35) Officer Griffith of the Tucson Police Department went to the residence and attempted contact with the residents. (36) Gant answered the door and told Officer Griffith that he did not live at the residence and that the resident would be returning later that evening. (37) Officer Griffith left the residence and ran Gant's personal information through the police department's computerized database. (38) The results of the database check revealed that Gant had an outstanding warrant in Pima County, Arizona and showed his driving privileges were suspended by the State of Arizona. (39)

    Tucson officers returned to the residence later in the evening. (40) Upon their return, officers found a man lingering in the back of the house and an unnamed woman in a parked vehicle in front of the house. (41) The man in the back of the house identified himself as Ben White and told the officers he was waiting for a friend. (42) Ben, whose real name was Jackie White, said that he was dropped off at the house by the female who was parked in front of the residence. (43) Officers made contact with the female in the parked car. (44) The female said she dropped off a man named "Jack" and was waiting for him. (45) The female consented to the officer's request to search her vehicle. (46) The search of the vehicle yielded a crack pipe containing narcotics residue. (47) Subsequent to finding the crack pipe following the consent search the officers arrested the female for possession of drug paraphernalia. (48) And after learning Jackie White's true name, the police arrested White for providing a false name (49) and outstanding warrants. (50)

    Jackie White and the female suspect were placed in patrol cars. (51) While officers were still outside the residence, Officer Griffith recognized an approaching car as the one that was parked at the residence earlier in the day. (52) Officer Griffith shined his light into the car as it passed and entered the driveway. (53) Officer Griffith recognized Gant as the driver of the car. (54) After Gant parked in the driveway and locked the car, Officer Griffith yelled for Gant and the two walked towards each. (55) Officer Griffith met Gant approximately ten to twelve feet from Gant's car. (56) Immediately upon meeting, Officer Griffith placed Gant under arrest and handcuffed him. (57) Gant asked Officer Griffith why he was being arrested and Officer Griffith informed him he was under arrest for driving on a suspended driver's license. (58) Gant told Officer Griffith he knew his driving privileges were suspended, (59) and he also told Officer Griffith about an arrest warrant from a previous driving with suspended privileges violation that was outstanding. (60)

    Because the patrol cars were full with the male and female arrestees, Officer Griffith called for additional patrol cars. (61) Officers Reed and Nolan were the two officers who responded to Officer Griffith's call for backup. (62) Gant was placed in the back and secured in one of the marked patrol cars. (63) Officers Reed and Nolan searched Gant's vehicle after Gant was secured in a patrol car. (64) Officer Reed found a handgun inside Gant's vehicle, and Officer Nolan found a jacket located on the backseat. (65) Officer Nolan first squeezed the pockets of the jacket and felt a substance in the left pocket that crumbled in his hand; Officer Nolan put his hand in the pocket and retrieved a baggie of cocaine. (66)

    Officer Nolan's discovery of the cocaine produced additional criminal charges against Gant. (67) The additional charges included possession of a narcotic drug for sale (68) and possession of drug paraphernalia. (69) Gant filed a motion in the Superior Court of Arizona to suppress the cocaine found during the search of his car. (70) Gant claimed the search lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion and was not conducted incident to his arrest. (71) The trial court denied the motion after Gant's counsel failed to file a supplemental memorandum as requested. (72) Subsequently, Gant was convicted at trial for unlawful possession of cocaine for sale and unlawful possession of paraphernalia. (73) Gant appealed the conviction. (74)

    The initial review by the Arizona Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court improperly denied Gant's motion to suppress the cocaine and paraphernalia found in the car following the search. (75) The appellate court's decision to...

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