Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615; 124 S. Ct. 2127; 158 L. Ed. 2d 905 (2004)

Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615; 124 S. Ct. 2127; 158 L. Ed. 2d 905 (2004)

Facts—After Marcus Thornton exited his car, Officer Deion Nichols of the Norfolk, Virginia, Police Department stopped him for having improper license tags. After discovering drugs on his person from a consensual patdown search, the officer arrested Thornton and searched the vehicle from which he had exited and discovered a handgun under the driver’s seat. Both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court refused to exclude the evidence.

Question—When police arrest an individual who has recently exited a vehicle, may they search the passenger compartment for evidence?

Decision—Yes, at least in cases where there is reason to believe that the search might provide evidence connected to the cause of the arrest.

ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (7–2 on judgment). In New York v. Belton (1981), the Court upheld the contemporaneous search of the passenger compartment of a car when police made a custodial arrest of an individual who had been speeding. It largely did so on the basis of Chimel v. California (1969), which had allowed a search of the area within reach of an individual arrested within his home. Such a search was justified to remove any weapons or prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence. Belton did not depend for its force on whether the individual was in or out of the car. Both types of individuals pose similar risks. Police should not have to risk arresting individuals in their cars simply in order to have a better chance of getting evidence. Belton provides a good “bright-line” rule which is better than having to determine in each case whether an individual was still in control of his vehicle.

J. O’Connor concurred in all but one footnote. She was sympathetic to J. Scalia’s dissent but reluctant to adopt it without further arguments.

J. Scalia, concurring. Chimel was based on preserving officer safety or the concealment or destruction of evidence. Its extension has been argued on the basis of three unpersuasive arguments. One is that an arrestee in handcuffs poses a continuing threat. The second avoids trying to penalize an officer who waited to make an arrest but seems to assume that such searches are “the Government’s right” rather than an “exception.” The third defense is that a bright-line rule is best. “If Belton searches are justifiable, it is not because the arrestee might grab a weapon or evidentiary item from his car, but simply because the car might contain evidence relevant to the crime for which he was arrested.” United States v. Rabinowitz (1950) is among the cases that would provide precedent for such evidence gathering. “The fact of prior lawful arrest distinguishes the arrestee from society at large, and distinguishes a search for evidence of his crime from general rummaging. Moreover, it is not illogical to assume that evidence of a crime is most likely to be found where the suspect was apprehended.” The Court should discard the rationale in Chimel for “a return to the broader sort of search incident to arrest that we allowed before Chimel—limited, of course, to searches of motor vehicles, a category of ‘effects’ which give rise to a reduced expectation of privacy.” Such searches should be limited “to cases where it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

J. Stevens, dissenting. New York v. Belton (1981) attempted to settle prior conflicts by allowing a broader search of automobiles than Chimel permitted and was even extended to closed containers within vehicles. Belton was not concerned with cases like the one at issue but with the arrests of suspects who were “seated in or driving an automobile at the time the law enforcement official approached.” By contrast the majority opinion applies a “swollen rule” that does not give adequate guidance as to “how recent is recent, or how close is close.” Just because an officer has authority to search an individual doesn’t mean an officer also has cause to search a vehicle.

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