We have all been pulled over by the police whether it be for speeding, rolling a stop sign, or a blown out taillight. Some of us may also have been questioned following this traffic stop and some of us may have been asked to consent to a search of the vehicle after questioning. If you consent to a search of your vehicle, then 4th Amendment protections are waived. That is, you can no longer claim that an illegal search or seizure occurred. An illegal search or seizure occurs when law enforcement searches either you or your property without first obtaining either valid oral consent to search or a valid warrant. However, the United States Supreme Court has carved out an exception to the warrant requirement (i.e. the requirement to obtain a warrant before searching someone’s vehicle).
The seminal case involving searches incident to arrest comes out of New York, but is applicable to all 50 states. In Belton, A New York state police officer pulled over a speeding vehicle, with four occupants, including Roger Belton. The vehicle belonged to none of the men present. The police officer smelled burnt marijuana, and saw an enveloped associated with the drug. He ordered the men out, arrested them for possession. He split them up, confiscated the drug, and searched each of them. He then searched the passenger compartment of the car, and found the respondent’s leather jacket. He found cocaine in one of the pockets. The main issue in this case was whether “the constitutionally permissible scope of a search incident to his arrest include the passenger compartment of the automobile in which he was riding.
The Supreme Court set out to firmly define the parameters of a search incident to arrest, established under previous law as “the area within the immediate control of the arrestee.” A reading of case law “suggests the generalization that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach . . . a weapon” or evidence. Any containers within the passenger compartment could be searched for that same reason.
The next leading case is a 2009 case that seemed to curb Belton a bit. In Gant, Police received an anonymous tip that a certain house was being used to sell drugs. Officers went to the house, and Gant answered the door and provided ID. Officers later found that Gant’s divers license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Officers returned later that day and when Gant drove up, he exited the vehicle and the officers arrested him away from his car and put into a patrol car. Officers then searched Gant’s car and found a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. The facts raised 4th Amendment concerns about warrantless searches and seizures. The issue in the case was whether a police officer may properly search the passenger compartment of a vehicle and its contents as a warrantless search incident to arrest if the arrestees are secured and cannot possibly reach any of the contents of the vehicle. The Supreme Court ruled that police are authorized to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.
These cases raise complicated issues of drug, gun, and other illegal contraband searches. Do not rely on the teachings of people like Jay-Z who famously opined, “Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back. And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.” Jay-Z is wrong and trust me if he was pulled over, searched, and found to have an illegal substance or firearm on him, he would contact a qualified Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney.