The United States Supreme Court (USSC) recently decided a case dealing with when police officers can search the vehicle of a person who has recently been arrested. The USSC’s ruling seems to pretty significantly limit a police officer’s right to search a person’s vehicle incident to an arrest when compared to the current practice.
Let’s look at this by way of a common example. A person is driving his (or another person’s) vehicle in Jacksonville, Florida and a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) officer stops the driver for a traffic violation. The JSO officer gets the driver’s license of the driver, runs it in his computer and learns that the driver’s license is suspended. The JSO officer then arrests the driver for driving with a suspended license (DWLS) and places him in the back of his patrol car.
This is a fairly common scenario in Jacksonville and cities all over the country. At this point, is the JSO officer permitted to search the driver’s vehicle? In the past, probably yes. This is what has been referred to as a search incident to arrest. Police officers commonly search the passenger compartment of a vehicle when the driver of the vehicle has been arrested. Thousands and thousands of drug charges, gun charges and other criminal charges have resulted from these kinds of searches. Police will search the vehicle of a driver arrested for any crime, find drugs, guns and/or evidence of other crimes and add criminal charges on the driver. Time and time again an initial arrest for DWLS or driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) turns into a drug and/or gun case based on evidence police find in the vehicle.
However, the recent decision of the USSC would seem to make a search of the vehicle in the situation described above an illegal search, in which case evidence of drugs or guns or other illegal activity would be thrown out. The recent decision indicated that the police can only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle after the driver has been arrested if: 1) the driver could reach for something in the vehicle, such as a weapon that could be used to injure the officer or evidence that could be destroyed, or 2) if the officer has reason to believe there is evidence of criminal activity in the vehicle.
In other words, before the police could seemingly always search the vehicle when the driver has been arrested regardless of the existence of any specific reason to do so. Now, the USSC is saying the police officer must have a reason, and that reason must be tied to officer safety or the discovery of evidence. If the person arrested is handcuffed and in the police officer’s patrol car, or otherwise separated from his/her vehicle, which is often the case after an arrest, the officer cannot base a search of the driver’s vehicle on the idea that the driver may reach in the vehicle, grab a weapon and become a threat to the officer. Likewise, if the police officer does not have a reason to believe that there is evidence of criminal activity in the vehicle (as there often would not be in a DWLS arrest), there is no legal basis to search the vehicle.
Because police officers in Jacksonville and other cities use the arrest of a driver as a blanket reason to search the passenger compartment of the vehicle and additional charges often result from such a search, this new law, which applies in every jurisdiction, could call into question the legality of searches of vehicles incident to arrests in the future.
If you have been arrested for a drug crime or any other crime related to a search of your vehicle and have questions as to whether the search was valid, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.