Changes to Search Incident to Arrest after Arizona v. Gant
Clients often ask criminal defense attorneys whether the police can lawfully search their vehicle after being arrested by the police.
In short, the answer may depend as to the reason for the arrest. In the event that the police arrest an individual for a traffic-related offense (i.e. driving while license suspended, leaving the scene of an accident, etc.) the police may be barred from searching the arrestee’s vehicle after the arrestee has been detained outside of the vehicle. Conversely, if the police arrest an individual for a drug-related offense (i.e. possession of marijuana located in plain view in the center console) a search of the arrestee’s vehicle is likely permitted even if the police have detained the arrestee outside their vehicle.
The law is well-settled that the police cannot search an arrestee’s vehicle without a warrant signed by a neutral and detached magistrate unless they can point to valid exception to the warrant requirement. One such exception to the warrant requirement is “search incident to a lawful arrest.” This particular exception derives from interest in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations.
The police may search a vehicle incident to recent occupant’s arrest “only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search” or when it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of the arrest might be found in the vehicle.” When these justifications are absent, a search of the arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless the police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies (i.e. consent).
In the recent landmark decision of Arizona v. Gant, 129 U.S. 1710 (2009), the United States Supreme Court held that the search of the defendant’s vehicle was unreasonable where the defendant “was clearly not within reaching distance of his car” because he was handcuffed in a patrol car at the time of the search. In Gant, law enforcement arrested the defendant for driving with a suspended license. Relying on the exception to the warrant requirement of “search incident to a lawful arrest”, and although Gant was lawfully detained outside his vehicle, law enforcement searched Gant’s vehicle and located a weapon and a bag of cocaine. The Supreme Court found the search unreasonable and reasoned that the law does not authorize a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle as law enforcement could not have reasonably believed that they would find evidence relevant to the offense of the arrest, in this case, driving with a suspended license.
In Florida, the Second District Court of Appeals in State v. K.S., 28 So.3d 985 (Fla. 2nd DCA, 2010), recently relied on Gant when holding that the police could not justify the search of the defendant’s vehicle after the police detained the defendant for fleeing and eluding law enforcement. The Second D.C.A. reasoned that the search was unreasonable because the police could not have reasonably believed that they would find evidence of the defendant’s crime (fleeing and eluding law enforcement) during a search of the vehicle.
Moving forward, the Courts will interpret the impact of Gant on a case by case basis. As such, if you or a family member is arrested for a crime in Florida where the basis of the arrest is evidence obtained by law enforcement (i.e. drugs, weapons, etc.) during a search of your vehicle, it is important to immediately contact a criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with Gant and its progeny. A skilled Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer may be able to fashion a viable Motion to Suppress all evidence seized as a result of an unlawful search and seizure.