The attorneys at Parkerson Santel, PLLC are often asked whether the police are permitted to search an individual's vehicle following an arrest. For example, what if an individual is arrested for driving under the influence? Can a police officer then search an individual's vehicle as part of the procedure following the arrest? Or what about a scenario where an individual is pulled over for a traffic violation and is subsequently arrested for an outstanding arrest warrant or a probation violation warrant? Can a police officer then search an individual's vehicle? The answer is oftentimes, "maybe."
In 2009, the United States Supreme Court published a very useful and important opinion in Arizona v. Gant. In Gant, the defendant/arrested driver was charged with driving on a suspended driver's license. Gant was not pulled over, but police officers watched him park a vehicle at a residence, get out and walk about thirty feet away from the vehicle. The officers were aware Gant's license was suspended and subsequently arrested him when he was about thirty feet away from his vehicle. Gant was then placed in the backseat of a patrol car and the vehicle that Gant was driving, at the time he arrived at the residence, was searched. Thus, a search incident to an arrest was performed. Narcotics and drug paraphernalia were located and Gant was subsequently charged with the criminal offenses.
A search incident to an arrest is generally performed following an arrest and permits a search of the arrested individual's person and the area within which that person might gain possession of a weapon or might destroy or hide evidence.
After a thorough analysis of the authority of a police officer to perform a search incident to an arrest (a search following an arrest), the United States Supreme Court held that police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment [of the vehicle] at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest. If these types of justifications do not exist, a search of an arrestee's vehicle is unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show an exception to a warrant requirement applies.