New guidelines dictate when an officer can search your car. The United States Supreme Court recently handed down an important opinion that narrows the ability of a police officer to search the passenger area of a car after a person in the car was arrested. In Arizona v. Gant, the Court found the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires police to have an actual and continuing threat to their safety or a reasonable belief that there is evidence in the car that directly relates to the crime the person was arrested for. Without this, a search could be unlawful and any ‘fruits', i.e. anything the officer found in the car, could be excluded from evidence. These types of searches are commonly called searches incident to arrest. This is different than an inventory search, a search of the vehicle when the vehicle is impounded. This is also different than probable cause to search standard; an officer can justify a search when there is a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime and the officer searches an area where he believes evidence of the crime exists.
Prior to this decision, law enforcement relied heavily on the decision in New York v. Belton. In Belton, the court held that a police officer may search the entire passenger compartment of a vehicle when they have made a lawful arrest of a person inside the vehicle.
Bottom line- anytime an officer searches you or your property, you should question it. This decision is a definite win for right to privacy rights advocates. This decision should impact many pending cases in the courthouses and certainly reaffirms the rights of individuals to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.
As a practical matter, watch out for the increase in inventory searches. When the police impound a vehicle, they become liable for the contents. To protect against civil liability, the police are permitted to examine the vehicle and create an inventory of its contents before sending the car to the impound lot. Many officers have avoided this in the past because of the time and paperwork it requires. Police Officers are now going to need the inventory search exception to justify their searches.
I assume owners of impound car lots who collect those enormous fines are cheering now.