The United States Supreme Court handed down a judgment Tuesday that will change how vehicle searches are done by law enforcement officers.
For the last 30 years, police officers have followed the ruling in New York v. Belton, which held that police could search the passenger compartment of a vehicle as a “contemporaneous incident” – or at the same time – of the arrest.
Tuesday’s decision changed things, when five judges agreed that the old ruling was no longer valid and once suspects are away from a vehicle, the ability for searching without a warrant is gone.
Santa Clarita Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Dunkle explained the ruling.
“Once a person is in fairly secure custody of a deputy or police officer, in the back seat of a car, and they’re handcuffed and they have no immediate access to the passenger compartment or to the trunk area, it makes it a little more difficult for an officer to re-enter that vehicle to conduct a search for either weapons or narcotics or any other evidence that might be in the car.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it’s just a little more challenging,” he continued. “You have to have a little bit more standing, more probable cause. It doesn’t rule it out as a search area, we just have to have a little more probable cause to conduct a search.”
Dunkle said that the ruling was handed down from the Supreme Court through the sheriff’s department training bureau and the District Attorney’s office.
“This morning, we briefed the deputies on the ruling,” Dunkle said. “We told them ‘When you’re out there making traffic stops, to be cognizant of the change so you can stay within the outlines of the law so the arrest stands up in court.”
Lt. Mark Hershey said that the procedure currently in place requires deputies to inventory only vehicles with holds on them or those being removed to a tow yard. He said that when someone is arrested for having a suspended license, there is a 30-day hold placed on the car. Before the car is removed to a tow yard, there is an inventory taken for both the owners and deputy’s protection.
Tuesday’s ruling was in response to an appeal filed by Rodney Joseph Grant, who was serving a sentence for drug possession Arizona. He was arrested for driving with an expired license and when his car was searched, police found cocaine in a jacket pocket.
Gant’s attorney petitioned the court to suppress the evidence, but the petition was denied, although the state supreme court acknowledged that the search was not legal. He appealed to the Supreme Court, who heard the case and supported the contention that the search was outside the boundaries of preserving officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence. Gant has since been released from custody.