Facts of the Case:
Rodney Gant was apprehended by Arizona state police on an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license. After the officers handcuffed Gant and placed him in their squad car, they went on to search his vehicle, discovering a handgun and a plastic bag of cocaine. At trial, Gant asked the judge to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle because the search had been conducted without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. The judge declined Gant's request, stating that the search was a direct result of Gant's lawful arrest and therefore an exception to the general Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The court convicted Gant on two counts of cocaine possession.
The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed, holding the search unconstitutional, and the Arizona Supreme Court agreed. The Supreme Court stated that exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement must be justified by concerns for officer safety or evidence preservation. Because Gant left his vehicle voluntarily, the court explained, the search was not directly linked to the arrest and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment. In seeking certiorari, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard argued that the Arizona Supreme Court's ruling conflicted with the Court's precedent, as well as precedents set forth in various federal and state courts.
Is a search conducted by police officers after handcuffing the defendant and securing the scene a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures?
No. The Supreme Court held that police may search the vehicle of its recent occupant after his arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest. With Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority and joined by Justices Antonin G. Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court reasoned that "warrantless searches are per se unreasonable" and subject only to a few, very narrow exceptions. Here, Mr. Gant was arrested for a suspended license and the narrow exceptions did not apply to his case.
Justice Scalia wrote separately, concurring. Justice Samuel A. Alito dissented and was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. He argued that the majority improperly overruled its precedent in New York v. Belton which held that "when a policeman has made a lawful arrest… he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile." Justice Stephen G. Breyer also wrote a separate dissenting opinion, where he lamented that the court could not create a new governing rule.
Courtesy of The Oyez Project, Arizona v. Gant , 556 U.S. ___ (2009)
available at: (http://oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2008/2008_07_542)