Warrantless Vehicle Searches: A Thing Of The Past?

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A 5-4 Supreme Court ruling will now force police officers to obtain warrants for vehicles they want to search. In the past, a 28 year precedent gave officers the legal authority to search any vehicle without a warrant immediately or soon after an arrest of the driver. They could also search as long as they had reason to believe there was evidence of a crime inside, even in cases of an ordinary traffic stops for speeding.

This new ruling states that officers must obtain a search warrant to legally search a car in cases where the driver has been arrested and is custody inside the police vehicle. The argument explains that the driver is no longer a threat to the officers or others, therefore, there is ample time for officer to effect the necessary  steps of obtaining the warrant.

Warrantless searches may still take place when the suspect removed from the car is still within reach of the passenger compartment, or when officers have reason to believe that evidence relating to the crime that led to the traffic stop will be found.

I know, as a former police academy instructor, that officers are taught (I guess I should say were taught) to make the traffic stop and then if at possible, search the car. This has a been a very effective means of discovering narcotics and cash related to drug trafficking. Other crimes, including murder, have been solved based upon warrantless searches of vehicles.

This new ruling from the high court stemmed from an Arizona case (remember Miranda started in Arizona) where a man was arrested for driving on a suspended license, handcuffed and placed inside an officer’s patrol car. The officers then searched the suspects car and found drugs and drug paraphernalia, which he was charged with having in his possession.

An Arizona court dismissed the charges stating the search was unreasonable. The state appealed and the final result was the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that was handed down yesterday.

I see this ruling as a lot more work for police officers. And costs for these arrests will be much higher. Now, police will have to have an officer stand by the vehicle while a second officer heads back to the department to begin the tedious chore of filling out the paperwork that’s required to obtain a search warrant. Then they’ll have to locate a judge or magistrate who’ll sign those documents.

During this time, another officer will be needed to transport the prisoner to the police department or county jail for processing. The criminal probably wouldn’t be permitted to remain on the scene (the longer a suspect remains in an officer’s custody the greater the chance of him becoming violent).

However, I still see a loophole for officers. When a driver is arrested and there’s no one with him who can drive the car away, police normally tow his vehicle to an impound lot. In these cases officers are legally permitted to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle, which means they may search the entire vehicle listing each item they find. Well, duh…If they discover drugs or a hacked up body during that legal search…Well, you get the idea.


The case is Arizona v. Gant, 07-542

12 replies
  1. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Bob – Good to see you out and about. The scenario you mentioned was one the court specifically addressed. In that instance officers are still permitted to conduct the warrantless search.

    Plain view always works.

  2. Bob Mueller
    Bob Mueller says:

    Nice digs, Lee.

    I haven’t read the ruling or case yet, but what about a situation where you’re only arresting one person out of 2-3 in the vehicle? Granted, that’s not common, but an interesting thought.

    Plain view still works though. If you think you see something, I’d see nothing wrong with taking a closer look. Now, if that closer look unveils something else……

  3. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    I see what you mean. And you’re right, I’m sure that argument would be made. Let’s hope it doesn’t fly.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Thanks for fielding the questions, Dave.

    I’m not saying they’d look at the number of officers at the scene, just that if the threat had been terminated. And I’m only thinking of an argument that could be raised by a defense attorney. That’s not the way it was written.

  5. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Lee, I would think that, regardless of the number of officers on scene, as long as the suspect is able to get to the car (theoretically) this new rule would not apply. Again, my answer is based on just what I’ve read here today (can you tell I’ve hanging around lawyers the last year?)

    Let’s hope the court never gets to the point of counting numbers of good guys vs. bad guys at the scene to see who outnumbers whom.

  6. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:


    Please allow me to take a crack at your question. I am going on the info. provided here at the Graveyard Shift, as I have not seen any other story about this Spreme Court ruling.

    The ruling Lee refers to today concerns “search incident to arrest” in cases where a person is taken into custody from a motor vehicle. Past court rulings have held that anyone physically arrested can be searched. Courts have extended that searchable area to anything within “lunging” distance, as the passenger compartment of motor vehicle in which the person is found. More recent rulings allowed this search to be conducted after the person was arrested and removed from the immediate area – for instance cuffed and placed in a police car. This ruling halts that last mentioned practice. From what I see of it, once a person is removed from that “lunging” area, the officer’s right to search ends.

    A little over a year ago, I posted a blog for the Graveyard shift on search and seizure. Just put that into the GYS search engine (in other words, search for search) and perhaps that blog entry might answer some of your questions. And don’t feel bad about being confused on searches. Most people are, myself included.

    There are other reasons to conduct a warrantless search of a car, which seem unaffected by this ruling.

    To answer the last part of your question – no. If you have no reason for a warrantless search, then no search is permissable.

  7. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Dave – Yes, this pertains to a search incident to arrest. I agree. I don’t see a huge problem. Maybe a little inconvenience for officers who think they’ve stopped a car containing a gazillion pounds of dope, but that’s about it as far as I can see.

    I think the premise is that the suspect no longer poses a threat. Therefore, if more officers were on the scene I believe the courts would feel the threat no longer existed. So I believe a warrant would be necessary. No?

  8. SZ
    SZ says:

    Ok, I am confused. (which I usually am) Paragraph 1 states:

    They could also search as long as they had reason to believe there was evidence of a crime inside, even in cases of an ordinary traffic stops for speeding.

    Paragraph 3 states:

    or when officers have reason to believe that evidence relating to the crime that led to the traffic stop will be found.

    So if it is a illegal left turn, and they dont look high, no need to search but if they do a search is still good ? The loophole sounds the same to me.

  9. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hi, everyone,

    Lee, love the new look of the GYS.

    If I read this right, this case involves searching a vehicle incident to arrest after the driver has been placed in the cruiser. I guess one solution would be to conduct a search that pertains to other PC while the suspect is still near the car (as long as you have backup there to make sure you don’t get jumped from behind.) Or, if the driver is in custody, but passengers are still present and near the car.

    That’s the trick about search and seizure, one little detail can change everything, and you can think of dozens of scenarios for each case.

    I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound all too bad. Frankly, I thought searching a car for safety or incident to arrest once the suspect was cuffed and in the cruiser was a bit of a stretch. It does not surprise me that it was overturned.

    On the issue of inventory searches, my department never did them, because you have to inventory EVERY car you tow, even for being an abandoned vehicle. So, we couldn’t use the inventory search exception for searching a suspected crime car.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Elena – I like the idea of having a live body on duty at all times. Sometimes, after waking a magistrate at 3am the results aren’t always positive.

    I can see a problem with having police officers serve as magistrates. It’s possible that every warrant would pass muster with no questions asked.

    Joyce – We aim to please! I like the new look too. There are a couple tiny bugs, but I’m sure they’ll be taken care of soon. Oh, my website will soon match the blog.

  11. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Lee, I just heard about this ruling on the news this morning and I was going to ask you about it. Now I don’t have to!

    I like the new blog look, btw!

  12. Elena
    Elena says:

    I was in San Juan Puerto Rico for a while in the 60’s. There they had a couple of things I haven’t heard of here – though both seem useful in light of this strange court decision.

    One were magistrate type courts that ran 24/7. Totally fascinating places to hang out in the wee hours. The other were police officers who were also sworn in as judges. They worked all shifts and had their own cars. Basically their judge job was to provide the proper paper work at the scene of the event.

    Probably illegal here for some reason or another, but it sure did save their system a ton of money.

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