Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Supreme Court Succumbs to Logic!

Interesting decision today in Arizona v. Gant. The defendant, who was suspected of having something to do with sales of illegal drugs, was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was handcuffed and locked in the back of a police car. Then the police searched the defendant's car and found cocaine in the pocket of a jacket.

Was the search lawful? Among the many, Byzantinely complicated rules of search and seziure law is that the police may conduct a search that is "incident" to a lawful arrest. This rule grew out of cases in which the Supreme Court expressed the concern that, at the moment of arrest, the arrestee might destroy evidence or produce a weapon and use it injure police. Therefore, the Court held, the police have the right to search the area within the arrestee's immediate control -- sometimes colloquially referred to by courts as his "wingspan" -- for evidence or weapons. Whatever they find is admissible. This rule, the Court held in 1981, applies to the passenger compartment of a car in which a suspect is arrested.

That's the theory, but the practice has been somewhat different. In cases too numerous to cite, the courts have held that the police's ability to search is wholly decoupled from the concerns that gave rise to it. So even if the defendant is handcuffed and in the back of a police car -- indeed, even if the defendant has left the scene -- courts have permitted the police to search the defendant's car.

Logically, this never made any sense. If the suspect is handcuffed and locked in the back of a police car, the suspect is not about to reach into his own car and pull out a weapon or destroy evidence. But the interests of law enforcement get a lot of weight in judicial decisions. So courts looked the other way as police conducted searches that had nothing to do with the rationale for them.

Today, the Supreme Court succumbed to logic. Recognizing that these decisions make no sense, and finally overwhelmed by the good old maxim cessante ratione legis, cessat et ipsa lex ("where the reason for a rule ceases, the rule ceases"), the Court limited the car search rule to the circumstances that justify it. If the suspect is restrained so that he can't get in the car, a search is not automatically allowed. Oh, there are still plenty of circumstances in which the search will end up being lawful -- in today's decision, the Court said searches would be permitted if when the police have reasonable grounds to believe they might find evidence relating to the offense for which they arrest the suspect -- but it's no longer automatic.

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