The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling last week in Arizona v. Gant, limited the circumstances under which police may search a car after arresting the driver.
The decision, by an unusual majority consisting of Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter, Scalia and Thomas, is a welcome reversal of a recent trend in court decisions that we’re inclined to call the drug-war exception to the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Rodney Gant answered the door at a house in Arizona in 1999 and told officers who had come on the basis of a tip about illicit drugs that the owners were away but would be back later.
The officers did a records check and found that Gant had outstanding warrants for driving on a suspended license. When the police returned, Gant drove up to the house, and they summoned him over and arrested him on the suspended-license charge. Then they searched his car and found cocaine and a gun. They arrested him on drug and weapons charges.
Gant’s attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found in the search. The trial court disagreed, and he was convicted. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed the search was unconstitutional and reversed the conviction. The state of Arizona appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The officers in Gant’s case were relying on a widespread understanding of the implications of a 1981 case, Belton v. New York, which has been interpreted to mean officers can search a car any time they arrest the driver or passenger, for whatever reason.
The majority in last week’s decision argued this was a misinterpretation, that Belton and previous cases should be understood to mean that a search of a car without a warrant is justified only if officers have reason to believe the arrestee might pose a danger to officers, perhaps by reaching for a weapon, or have reason to believe evidence of the crime for which he was arrested might be found.
At the time of the search of Gant’s car, Gant was in handcuffs in the back of a squad car, and the police had all the evidence they needed for the suspended-license and failure-to-appear charges. The search amounted to a “fishing expedition” for evidence of another crime. Without a warrant, such fishing expeditions are unconstitutional.
We hope this decision represents a determination by the high court to tighten the standards for searches without warrants. The trend in recent decades has been to allow the police more latitude about searches, and the reason for such leniency in almost every case has been to make it easier to get evidence to convict people on drug charges.
The fact the courts and other elements of law enforcement believe it is necessary to chip away at the privacy protections embodied in the Fourth Amendment to enforce drug laws should cause people to rethink the drug laws themselves. If laws cannot be enforced effectively without chipping away at our constitutional rights — and they create other social problems such as enriching unscrupulous and violent gangsters — perhaps it is time to consider repealing them.