Monday, November 16, 2009

Automobile Searches

united states supreme court building in washington d.c.
The law governing automobile searches changed dramatically this year with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U. S. ____ (2009). Previously, state and federal courts had interpreted the Supreme Court’s decision in New York v. Belton to allow police officers to search the passenger area of an automobile without a warrant after the passenger had been arrested regardless of the passenger’s proximity to the car. 453 U.S. 454 (1981).

Gant rejects this broad reading of Belton. The Court’s re-interpretation of Belton “authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.” Gant, 556 U. S. ____ (2009). In Gant, the police searched the defendant’s car after the defendant was handcuffed and sitting in the back seat of a patrol car. The Supreme Court held the search in Gant to be unreasonable because there was no danger that the defendant would be able to reach into the car to access evidence or weapons.

The Gant decision could affect many criminal cases in Utah. Prior to Gant, police officers were generally trained that the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle could be searched without a warrant after an occupant had been arrested no matter how far from the car the suspect was at the time of the search. Gant indicates that any evidence obtained as a result of such a “search incident to arrest” could be suppressed and the prosecution would not be able to present it at trial.

Two Utah cases have applied Gant retroactively to pre-Gant searches. In State v. Brower, 2009 UT App 143, and State v. Hill, 2009 UT App 254, the State of Utah moved to vacate convictions based on searches that violated the principles of Gant even though the searches occurred long before Gant was decided. In Hill, the illegal search occurred in 2007. In Brower, the Court of Appeals' decision does not clearly indicate the date of the search, but the trial court's docket indicates that the offense date was April 28, 2007. In each case, the State, not the defendant, moved to vacate the convictions based on Gant and the Court of Appeals granted the State's request.

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