WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they have arrested if the person is locked up in a patrol cruiser and poses no safety threat to officers.
The court's 5-4 decision in a case from Arizona puts new limits on the ability of police to search a vehicle immediately after the arrest of a suspect, particularly when the alleged offense is nothing more serious than a traffic violation.
Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion that warrantless searches still may be conducted if a car's passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect who has been removed from the vehicle or there is reason to believe evidence will be found of the crime that led to the arrest.
"When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant," Stevens said.
Justice Samuel Alito, in dissent, complained that the decision upsets police practice that has developed since the court, 28 years ago, first authorized warrantless searches of cars immediately following an arrest.
"There are cases in which it is unclear whether an arrestee could retrieve a weapon or evidence," Alito said.
Even more confusing, he said, is asking police to determine whether the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. "What this rule permits in a variety of situations is entirely unclear," Alito said.
Stevens conceded that police academies teach the more permissive practice and that law enforcement officers have relied on it. Yet, he said, "Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation have had their constitutional right to the security of their private effects violated as a result."
Fordham University law professor Dan Capra said the ruling "will have a major impact when the driver is arrested for a traffic offense." When police have probable cause to arrest someone for drug crimes, Capra said, they ordinarily will be able to search a car in pursuit of illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Prosecutors and police instructors were generally disappointed with the decision.
Tom Hammarstrom, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, said training for law officers would be adjusted to conform to the high court's ruling.
Devallis Rutledge, special counsel to the Los Angeles County district attorney, said he was working on formulating advice for prosecutors on how to apply the court's decision.
"It's not the kind of clear-cut guidance that police officers, lawyers and judges need. It substantially overrules a 28-year-old precedent that we've all relied on," Rutledge said.
Police officers have been "doing the safe thing" by searching vehicles after securing suspects to make sure they aren't a safety threat. "That's been the way they've been taught and the way they've been trained," Rutledge said. "Now, we will lose the evidence they obtained" in some cases.
He said the new rules might even make it harder to catch criminals, noting that evidence found during a vehicle search when someone is arrested for a relatively minor crime can lead to greater charges, such as drug offenses or even murder.
The decision backs an Arizona high court ruling in favor of Rodney Joseph Gant, who was handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car and under police supervision when Tucson, Ariz., police officers searched his car. They found cocaine and drug paraphernalia.
The trial court said the evidence could be used against Gant, but Arizona appeals courts overturned the convictions because the officers already had secured the scene and thus faced no threat to their safety or concern about evidence being preserved.
Gant was placed under arrest for driving on a suspended license and he already was at least 8 feet away from his car when he was arrested.
Arizona, backed by the Bush administration and 25 other states, complained that a decision in favor of Gant would impose a "dangerous and unworkable test" that would complicate the daily lives of law enforcement officers.
But civil liberties groups argued that police routinely invade suspects' privacy by conducting warrantless searches when there is no chance suspects could have access to their vehicles. The groups also suggested that police would not increase the danger to themselves by leaving suspects unrestrained and near their cars just to justify a search in the absence of a warrant.
The justices divided in an unusual fashion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, David Souter and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy were in dissent along with Alito.
Scalia said in a separate opinion that he would allow warrantless searches only to look for "evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred." He said he joined Stevens' opinion anyway because there otherwise would not have been a majority for that view and Alito's desire to maintain current police practice "is the greater evil."
The case is Arizona v. Gant, 07-542.
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