The U.S. Supreme Court will use a Tucson case to decide when police can routinely search the vehicles of the people they arrest.
The justices announced Monday they have agreed to consider a plea by police and prosecutors to overturn a divided state Supreme Court decision last year that restricted the ability of officers to search without a warrant in situations where they need to ensure their safety. In that case, the state justices said once there was no threat, the right to search without a warrant disappeared.
In agreeing to accept the case, the justices acknowledged that, in this case, the occupants of the vehicle searched had been arrested and secured. But they said they want to decide whether the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable search and seizure, requires law enforcement officers "to demonstrate a threat to their safety or a need to preserve evidence related to the crime of arrest" before they can look through a vehicle without a search warrant.
Whatever the court rules will have nationwide implications.
Court records show that two uniformed Tucson police officers went to a house in 1999 after receiving a tip about narcotics activity there. Rodney Gant answered the door but said the owner wasn't home.
Police later checked records and learned Gant had a suspended driver's license and had an outstanding warrant for driving on a suspended license. They returned to the house.
When Gant drove up and got out of the car, he was arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. When officers searched his car, they said they found a small bag of cocaine and a weapon. He was subsequently convicted on drug charges after the trial judge refused to throw out the evidence.
But in a 3-2 decision, the majority of the Arizona Supreme Court said the authority of police to conduct warrantless searches is limited to situations of police safety, such as looking for a weapon in the immediate area of the person being arrested, or where waiting for a warrant might result in destruction of evidence.
But Judge Rebecca Berch, writing that majority decision, pointed out that Gant was already handcuffed and in the back of a patrol car. That, Berch said, means the Tucson Police Department violated Gant's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
But Justice Scott Bales, writing the dissent, said searches of vehicles are reasonable and legal when someone who has been in the car is legally arrested.