The defendant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car. There were five officers at the scene and two other suspects who had already been arrested, handcuffed, and locked in patrol cars. The officers searched the defendant’s vehicle incident to his arrest and found a gun and cocaine in the pocket of a jacket in the back seat.
Whether the government may automatically search a vehicle incident to arrest when the arrestee has been secured and no longer has access to weapons or evidence?
No. The justifications for searching a vehicle incident to arrest are (1) officer safety, and (2) evidence preservation. Once an arrestee is secured and can no longer access his vehicle, there is no longer any risk that he will access weapons or evidence contained therein.
Officer safety and evidence preservation have been the long-standing rationales behind the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Although it had become commonplace for officers to search a vehicle incident to the arrest of one of its occupants regardless of whether the suspect had been secured, the Supreme Court in this case held that such searches are unconstitutional when the suspect can no longer access the vehicle. If the suspect is secured and he can no longer access weapons or evidence contained in the vehicle then the rationales for the exception do not apply. The Court further clarified that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to arrest when it is “reasonable to believe” that evidence of the crime of arrest may be found within. When the defendant is secured in a locked police car, and the crime of arrest is driving on a suspended license for which no evidence could reasonably found in the vehicle, none of the exceptions justify a search incident to arrest. However, the government may search a vehicle incident to arrest after the arrestee has been secured when it is reasonable to believe that evidence related to the crime of arrest may be found within.
556 U.S. 332, 129 S. Ct 1710 (2009)