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The search for cars at the moment of arrest

This content about Police Misconduct was written by a third party and does not represent the views or opinions of Haddad & Sherwin LLP, nor should it be construed as a complete and accurate statement of the law or as legal advice.  For better information about this topic, please contact Haddad & Sherwin LLP.

Events happen quickly when a cop makes an arrest. Often, the person being arrested does not have time to think about what their rights are because the situation is overwhelming. For a civil rights attorney, police misconduct is also a type of case that they commonly deal with in situations like this one

If you are arrested in or near your car, then you will need to know how and to what extent the police can legally search your car at the time of your arrest. Therefore, it is important that you are familiar with your rights if you are arrested, as well as contacting a civil rights attorney to help you further.

When can a car be searched in an arrest incident

In April 2009, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Arizona v. Gant that clarified the power of police to conduct a vehicle search in an arrest incident. The Court ruled that unless the police have a search warrant on the car, properly executed at the time of arrest, the police can only search the car if:

  1. The suspect had a weapon in his possession.
  2. The suspect may have tried to destroy the evidence; or
  3. When it is reasonable for the police to believe that there is evidence in the car that supports the crime for which the person is being arrested.

The Court emphasized that searches conducted without a warrant are presumably illegal and that a search resulting from an arrest incident is an exception to that general rule. Since such a search is an exception to the rule, only a very limited number of searches are allowed.

This rule limits the community’s interpretation of the 1981 Supreme Court rule in New York v. Belton. Police officers, relying on the Belton rule, have been conducting routine searches of the passenger car compartment whenever a driver or passenger in the car is arrested. This unmandated search has been conducted whenever an arrest is made, regardless of whether the suspect was able to reach for a weapon or destroy evidence and without any reason to believe that there was evidence in the car to support the arrest.

Application of the Supreme Court Decision

The court rule in Arizona v. Gant requires police officers to reconsider when they can legally search cars at the time of an arrest. For example, if the suspect has been arrested and secured in police custody, then the first two exceptions do not apply, because it is no longer possible for the suspect to reach for a weapon or attempt to destroy evidence in the car.

As for the application of the third exception, it will depend on the reason for the arrest. If, for example, the suspect is arrested for a traffic violation such as drunk driving, then the police cannot search the car to determine if there is evidence related to a recent robbery in the area, since the suspect was not arrested for robbery but for drunk driving.

Civil rights attorneys and Police Misconduct

Recent court rules make it clear that it is illegal to routinely conduct a prior car search as an incident of an arrest, as it can be considered police misconduct. Instead, searches can only take place in certain limited circumstances. This is a decision that law enforcement officials have criticized, and defense civil rights attorneys have welcomed. It will be interesting to see what effect the rule will have in practice in the months and years ahead.

Haddad & Sherwin LLP has a long, successful track record winning wrongful death and other serious civil rights claims for police and jail officer misconduct, throughout Northern and Central California.  Call or email us for a free consultation.

This content about Police Misconduct was written by a third party and does not represent the views or opinions of Haddad & Sherwin LLP, nor should it be construed as a complete and accurate statement of the law or as legal advice.  For better information about this topic, please contact Haddad & Sherwin LLP.