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New York v. Belton


An officer stopped a car for speeding in which the defendant and four other men were riding. None of the men owned the car or were related to its owner. The officer smelled marijuana and saw an envelope on the floor of the car that he suspected contained marijuana. The officer picked up the envelope and found marijuana inside. He ordered the men out of the car and arrested them. He searched the men and the passenger compartment of the car. On the back seat of the car the officer found a black jacket that belonged to the defendant. He unzipped one of the pockets of the jacket and discovered cocaine


Whether the scope of a search incident to an arrest includes the containers located in the passenger compartment of the automobile in which the arrestee was riding?


Yes. Once a lawful arrest of an occupant of an automobile is made, and the officer reasonably believes he may find more evidence of the crime in the vehicle, the officer may examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment.


When an officer makes a lawful arrest, the officer may, incident to that arrest, search the arrestee and the immediate surrounding area. Such searches are valid because of the need to remove any weapons the arrestee might access to resist arrest and to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence. However, the scope of the search may not stray beyond the area within the immediate control of the arrestee.

Articles inside the relatively narrow area of the automobile passenger compartment are generally within the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary item. Therefore, an officer has made a lawful arrest of the occupant of an automobile, the officer may, incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile if the arrestee has access to its contents.

It follows that an officer may examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment. If the passenger compartment is within the reach of the arrestee, so are containers within it. Such a container may be searched whether it is open or closed. The justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container. It is the lawful arrest that justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have.

In Arizona v. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the safety and evidentiary justifications underlying Chimel’s (1969) reaching-distance rule limit the holding in Belton to circumstances when a vehicle search incident to arrest is justified by those concerns. Accordingly, the majority in Gant clarified that Belton 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, unless, due to circumstances unique to the automobile context, it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.


453 U.S. 454, 101 S. Ct. 2860 (1981)

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