The Supreme Court today sharply limited the power of police to search a suspect's car after making an arrest, acknowledging that the decision changes a rule that law enforcement has relied on for nearly 30 years.
In a decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, an unusual five-member majority said police may search a vehicle without a warrant only when the suspect could reach for a weapon or try to destroy evidence or when it is "reasonable to believe" there is evidence in the car supporting the crime at hand.
The court noted that law enforcement for years has interpreted the court's rulings on warrantless car searches to mean that officers may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle as part of a lawful arrest of a suspect. But Stevens said that was a misreading of the court's decision in New York v. Belton in 1981.
"Blind adherence to Belton's faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches," Stevens said, adding that the court's tradition of honoring past decisions did not bind it to continue such a view of the law.
"The doctrine of stare decisis does not require us to approve routine constitutional violations."
Stevens was joined by two of his most liberal colleagues -- Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- and two of his most conservative -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The decision overturned a three-year prison sentence for Arizonan Rodney Gant, who had been convicted of cocaine possession. Police found the drug in a search of his car, following his arrest for driving with a suspended license. Gant had already walked away from his car when he was arrested, and he sat handcuffed a distance away while police searched his car.
"Police could not reasonably have believed either that Gant could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense for which he was arrested might have been found therein," Stevens wrote.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the four dissenters, said the court's insistence that its precedents had been misinterpreted was simply a cover for getting rid of a decision with which it disagreed.
He said the replacement of what had been an easy-to-understand "bright line" rule for police "is virtually certain to confuse law enforcement officers and judges for some time to come."
The court's new rules will endanger arresting officers, he said, and "cause the suppression of evidence gathered in many searches carried out in good-faith reliance on well-settled case law."
He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer.
The case is Arizona v. Gant.
By Robert Barnes
April 22, 2009