The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police officers aren’t allowed to search a vehicle without a warrant, if a suspect has been arrested and the scene has been secured.
The decision comes in the case of a Tucson man, Rodney Joseph Gant, who police arrested in 1999 on suspicion of a license violation. Gant was in the back of a police car when officers searched his vehicle and found cocaine. He was later charged with drug possession.
Gant claimed under the fourth amendment of the Constitution that when officers searched his vehicle without a warrant, it violated his protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Law enforcement officers are allowed to search a person or a vehicle without a warrant if it’s necessary to secure a weapon or preserve evidence that could be destroyed by a suspect.
But if no danger to the officer or the evidence exists,
then an officer must get a warrant before searching a vehicle and its contents, the Arizona Supreme Court decided.
During the case, two law enforcement associations argued that the ruling could tempt officers to search vehicles before securing arrestees, thus jeopardizing their safety.
The court replied, “We presume that police officers will exercise proper judgment in their contacts with arrestees and will not engage in conduct that creates unnecessary risks to their safety or public safety in order to circumvent the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”
The court noted that warrants can be obtained within minutes over the telephone.
“It is not unreasonable to require that police officers obtain search warrants when they have probable cause to do so to protect a citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches,” wrote Vice Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch.
Gant’s case passed through Pima County Superior Court, the Arizona Court of Appeals, the Arizona Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before returning to the Arizona Supreme Court for this decision.
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
(Source: National Archives)