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Interpreting Arizona v. Gant’s “Reasonable Belief” Standard for Warrantless Car Searches

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Procedure, Opinions/Cases

In Arizona v. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court helped slow a continuing trend in the chipping away of Fourth Amendment protections. For years, most jurisdictions allowed police officers to search any car whose occupants had been arrested, even when the traditional justifications for the warrantless car search –officer safety and preservation of evidence – were absent.  Typical of the resulting practice was the exchange described in Gant. When asked at the suppression hearing why he had searched the car without a warrant, the police officer responded: “Because the law says we can do it.”

Offsetting this drift toward police entitlement in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Gant brought the officer safety/preservation-of-evidence exception back to within its original scope; namely, situations in which “the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”  Debunking the notion of this superhuman suspect who could shed his handcuffs, climb his way out of the backseat of a squad car, and fight his way through multiple police officers in order to grab a weapon or destroy evidence, the Court reaffirmed the privacy interests at stake:  “Although we have recognized that a motorist’s privacy interest in his vehicle is less substantial than in his home, the former interest is nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection.”

At the same time, in what has been described as the “second prong” of the Gant holding, the Court also recognized a new justification for a warrantless car search. Specifically, the Court held that police may search a car in connection with an arrest if it is “reasonable” to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense for which the suspect was arrested. Although the Court did not define the nature and quantum of evidence needed to make that “reasonable” connection, the Court did note that “in many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence.” In other words, you need more than just an arrest to search the car.

Following appellate courts in other jurisdictions, the D.C. Court of Appeals took a crack at what might serve as the “evidentiary basis” for such a legal search in an opinion issued last week, United States v. Larry Taylor, 49 A.3d 818 (D.C. 2012). The defendant in this case was arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) and was sitting handcuffed in a patrol car awaiting transport when the police searched his car, finding a loaded handgun in the unlocked glove compartment.  The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress before trial on firearm charges, and the government appealed.

The government cited three reasons for concluding that police officers had reason to believe they would find evidence of drinking in the car, thereby satisfying the Gant requirement of reasonable belief. First, the officer testified that, based on his experience with numerous DUI investigations, people who drive drunk “typically” have an open container of alcohol in their car. The purpose of the search was to recover that open container. Second, with notice that “police were on their way,” the defendant ”had the time and opportunity to hide evidence” while searching for his insurance card in the glove compartment.  Finally, results from the field sobriety and preliminary breath tests that were administered on the scene suggested that the defendant had been lying when he claimed that he had only consumed two beers at his sister’s house about two hours earlier.

The Court of Appeals started out by rejecting a per se rule, adopted in some other jurisdictions, according to which “certain offenses will never provide an officer with reasonable belief that an automobile contains evidence of the offense, while other offenses always will.”  Such a “categorical approach,” it held, was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s concern that a “rule that gives police the power to conduct a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals.”

As for what would in fact satisfy Gant’s “reasonable belief” standard, the court held that:

. . . we think it evident that the reasonable belief standard articulated in Gant requires less than probable cause.  This conclusion flows directly from the language in Gant.  The Supreme Court is well-versed in, and fully capable of invoking, the probable cause standard.  If the court had intended to adopt the probable cause standard as the second prong of Gant, it surely would have done so.  Moreover, application of the probable cause standard would render the second prong of Gant superfluous, since law enforcement officers already have the authority to search a vehicle without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime is hidden inside . . . We therefore join the nearly unanimous chorus of courts that have held that Gant’s “reasonable to believe” standard is less than probable cause.  (Citations omitted.)

Noting the similarity of the language, the court held that “reasonable belief” under Gant is akin to the “reasonable suspicion” standard under Terry.  In other words, to justify a warrantless car search under Gant, a police officer must be able to point to “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.”

A court need not ignore the offense that led to the suspect’s arrest in determining whether an evidentiary search of an automobile was justified under Gant,” and in some cases the facts justifying the arrest will also provide justification for the search. At the same time, as with Terry, there must be a greater connection between the facts of the arrest and the need to search the car than a police officer’s “mere hunch” or “gut feeling.”

Applying this standard to the facts of this case, the court concluded that the police officer did not have a reasonable basis for searching the defendant’s car.  First, the court stated that it would need a “great more detail” to accept the police officer’s conclusory statement that drunk drivers typically have open containers of alcohol in the car with them.  Second, although it was clear that the defendant had consumed more alcohol than he admitted to, the government presented no evidence that suggested he had been drinking in the car.  Finally, although the defendant had spent some time looking for his insurance, the fact that defendant had an opportunity to conceal evidence did “not tell us anything about whether there was any evidence to be hidden.”  The granting of the defendant’s motion to suppress was therefore affirmed.