The federal courts recently narrowed a Fourth Amendment search warrant exception frequently used by law enforcement officers.
In Arizona v. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 limited the “search incident to lawful arrest” warrant exception in relation to the search of an arrested suspect’s vehicle. Incident to a suspect’s arrest, a peace officer may search only the areas immediately within the suspect’s control at the time or when the officer has reason to believe the vehicle contains evidence relevant to the arresting crime.
This year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals applied Gant in United States v. McCraney. About 1 a.m., a police officer began following a car that did not dim its bright lights as it passed. The occupants eventually flagged down the officer. During the stop, the officer determined that DeJuan McCraney owned the vehicle and that he and the driver had suspended licenses.
The officer told the two men he could not let them drive the vehicle and eventually arrested McCraney for unlawful entrustment. He did not handcuff McCraney or the driver, but had them stand a few feet from the car with three officers around them. Police searched the car and found a gun under the seat. McCraney was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm and filed a motion to suppress the gun as evidence of an unconstitutional search.
The appeals court found no reason to believe evidence of wrongful entrustment would be found in the car or that McCraney was “within reaching distance” of it during the search. Therefore, the warrantless search was not justified as “incident to arrest.”
Now, when a suspect who is secured and cannot get access to the vehicle’s interior has been arrested for a traffic offense, an officer cannot justify the warrantless search under the search-incident-to-arrest exception.