Supreme Court strikes a blow for the Fourth Amendment (a.k.a. Scalia’s got your back, this time)

Stephen C. Webster
Raw Story
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wait, what?

In an unusual reversal of roles today, traditionally right-wing Supreme Court Justices formed a majority in a decision which expands, in practice anyway, citizens’ Constitutional Fourth Amendment rights.

From the Criminal Lawyer blog:

In a stunning 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today reversed its longstanding bright-line rule which had permitted warrantless car searches after an arrest, even when there was no concern for officer safety or the preservation of evidence. The case is Arizona v Gant.

Writing for the majority in this important decision, Justice Stevens held that the police may only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, pursuant to the arrest of a recent occupant, if it is reasonable to believe that the arrested person might access the car while it’s being searched, or that the car contains evidence of the crime for which that person was arrested.

Interestingly, the votes were contrary to common stereotype. The majority, which limited police powers, included the two most right-wing justices in the popular mind, Scalia and Thomas. The minority, which would have expanded police powers, included two fairly liberal justices, Kennedy and Breyer.

“The high court’s conservative majority in recent years has generally sided with the police while cutting back on the rights of criminal suspects in car cases,” noted Reuters, reporting on the case in late March after the high court agreed to rule.

The events leading up to the court’s decision were summarized in the court’s decision, available here (PDF link).

“On August 25, 1999, acting on an anonymous tip that the residence at 2524 North Walnut Avenue was being used to sell drugs, Tucson police officers Griffith and Reed knocked on the front door and asked to speak to the owner,” reads the court document. “Gant answered the door and, after identifying himself, stated that he expected the owner to return later. The officers left the residence and conducted a records check, which revealed that Gant’s driver’s license had been suspended and there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.

“When the officers returned to the house that evening,they found a man near the back of the house and a woman in a car parked in front of it. After a third officer arrived, they arrested the man for providing a false name and thewoman for possessing drug paraphernalia. Both arrestees were handcuffed and secured in separate patrol cars when Gant arrived. The officers recognized his car as it entered the driveway, and Officer Griffith confirmed that Gantwas the driver by shining a flashlight into the car as itdrove by him. Gant parked at the end of the driveway, got out of his car, and shut the door. Griffith, who was about 30 feet away, called to Gant, and they approached each other, meeting 10-to-12 feet from Gant’s car. Griffith immediately arrested Gant and handcuffed him.

“Because the other arrestees were secured in the only patrol cars at the scene, Griffith called for backup. When two more officers arrived, they locked Gant in the backseat of their vehicle. After Gant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, two officers searched his car: One of them found a gun, and the other discovered a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.”

Scalia, concurring with the majority, wrote:

“I believe that this standard fails to provide the needed guidance to arresting officers and also leaves much room for manipulation, inviting officers to leave the scene unse-cured (at least where dangerous suspects are not involved) in order to conduct a vehicle search. In my view we should simply abandon the Belton-Thornton charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto “reasonable” only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred. Because respondent was arrested for driving without a license (a crime for which no evidence could be expected to be found in the vehicle), I would hold in the present case that the search was unlawful.”

Now that’s an interesting turn of events.

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