Since New York v. Belton was decided by the Supremes in 1981, police officers have had the right to search the passenger compartment of the automobile an arrested person had just been in. It was called a “bright line” test, affording a “single, familiar standard” to guide police officers. It was an extension of Chimel v. California. As we learned from Chimel, a search incident to a lawful arrest, not only included the arrestee’s person, but the area from which he might gain possession of a weapon or destroy evidence.

The rationale of the Chimel decision was to protect the officer and any evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made. However, determining what the ”area within his immediate control” included was often difficult and many courts had trouble defining it.

The Belton decision, recognizing that if lawyers and judges were having trouble with the ”nuances and hairline distinctions,” as one court put it, ”they may be literally impossible by the officer in the field.”

In order to define the scope of a person’s constitutional protected area, and a police officer’s authority to search, the rule of Belton was established. ”When a policeman has made a lawful arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as an incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.”  It was a simple, straightforward rule, easily understood, and taught to America’s police officers. The rule also allowed searches for any containers found in the passenger compartment.

That was exactly how Roger Belton was arrested on the New York State Thruway. A speeding car was stopped by a lone trooper who smelled marijuana. A ”Supergold” envelope was also seen on the floor of the car. All four occupants were removed from the car and arrested. As the trooper only had one set of handcuffs, he ordered all four men to sit by the side of the road as he searched the inside of the car.

He found Belton’s jacket near where he had been sitting and searched it. Cocaine was found in a zippered compartment of the jacket. After Belton’s arrest, indictment, trial, and eventual appeal to the United States Supreme Court, passenger compartments were deemed to be within the immediate control of the area from which the arrested person ”might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary item.” Remember the trooper was alone with four subjects and one set of cuffs.

The rule was criticized by many. If it was based upon Chimel, and the arrested person was in cuffs, or already in a police car, should it still apply? How could he hurt the officer or destroy evidence of the offense for which he was arrested?

In 2009, the court chose to revisit Belton. Rodney Joseph Gant was arrested in Tucson, Arizona, for driving with a suspended license. He had gotten out of his vehicle and was arrested some 10-12 feet away from it. He was handcuffed and locked in a patrol car.

Several back-up officers were on scene. Gant complained that the subsequent search of his car, pursuant to the rule of Belton, that revealed a gun and cocaine, was unjustified. How could he enter his car and obtain a weapon to harm the officer, and what evidence could be found of the offense for which he had been arrested? As a matter of fact, at the suppression hearing, his arresting officer was asked why he searched the car, the answer was classic, ”Because the law says we can do it.” Great answer by Officer Griffith.

Despite his knowledge of what he was taught, the Gant court, reminded us of Chimel’s two purposes, protecting arresting officers and any evidence of the offense of arrest. In comparing this arrest to that of Belton’s, there are significant differences. Several officers present, handcuffs, and the subject in a caged unit clearly prevented any attack upon the officers, and what evidence could they find to support the traffic violation?

The case of Belton was overruled. The court held, ”that the Chimel rationale authorizes police to search only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”

Because the police could not reasonably believe that Gant could access the car at the time of the search, or that evidence of the traffic offense would be found therein, the search was deemed to be unreasonable. The other automobile exceptions remain; however as a search incident to a lawful arrest, let’s keep in mind the reason for it: protecting the officer and the evidence!!

David M. Waksman, J.D., is a nationally known former homicide prosecutor with vast experience in trying violent offenders and a former sergeant with the NYPD. He served for 35 years with of the Miami-Dade (Fla.) State Attorney’s Office, primarily in the Major Crimes Division. He teaches Case Preparation and Courtroom Presentation, Police Involved Shootings, Injury and Death Investigation and Criminal Law at the Miami Dade College School of Justice, In-Service Training Unit and at various police departments in South Florida.  His specialty is Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues. He has tried almost 200 jury trials, including 79 for first degree murder. He is the author of the Search and Seizure Handbook, 3/ed.  It was cited by the United States Supreme Court in Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006), available from Prentice Hall.