Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Arizona v Gant,  it was standard practice under New York v Belton for police to conduct a search incident to arrest (SITA) of the passenger compartment of an automobile whenever they arrested the driver or a recent occupant of the vehicle. The traditional justifications for the search incident to arrest, as articulated in Chimel v California,  are to allow police to secure any weapons that the arrestee might seek to use to resist arrest or escape and to preserve evidence the arrestee might attempt to conceal or destroy. Belton purported to apply Chimel’s rationale to arrests in automobiles. Searches of passenger compartments of automobiles, however, were routinely deemed lawful even if the arrestee was handcuffed and nowhere near where he could access weapons or contraband inside the vehicle.

After Belton, lower courts (and police officers themselves) began to treat the search incident to arrest of a vehicle as a “police entitlement rather than as an exception justified by the twin rationales” underlying post-arrest searches. Moreover, police came to view the search incident to arrest as a powerful investigative tool because they could stop and arrest motorists for minor traffic offenses in order to get a free search for evidence of more serious crimes.

At least as a formal matter, Arizona v Gant changed all this. In Gant the Arizona Supreme Court reviewed a Fourth Amendment challenge to an automobile search incident to arrest conducted after the driver had been arrested, handcuffed, and secured in the police car. While lower courts had routinely upheld searches incident to arrest under similar circumstances, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the search on the ground that neither of the Chimel rationales—police safety and preservation of evidence—justified a search incident to arrest under these circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In a 5–4 decision written by Justice Stevens, the Court held that “[t]he safety and evidentiary justifications” underlying Chimel’s rule that police may search the space within the arrestee’s immediate control “determine Belton’s scope.” The Court held, specifically, that police may not do a SITA of an automobile once the arrestee “has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle” unless it is “reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

Barbara E. Armacost, <em>Arizona v. Gant</em>: Does It Matter?, 2009 Supreme Court Review 275–317 (2010).