Part 1: Gant And The Aftermath

The Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) decision from the United States Supreme Court was an unmitigated disaster…for police.

It was a huge set back for car searches and officer safety. 

But if it was a loss for officers can Arizona v. Gant be considered a win for citizens?

On this page we’ll provide some back ground on the Gant decision and explain what kind of car searches are allowed after this landmark SCOTUS opinion.

Before Gant, police had broad “search incident to arrest” authority. Anytime a person was arrested after a traffic stop. That car could be searched…not any more!

Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 556 U.S. 332 (2009)

The Facts In Gant

The defendant had been seen by the police driving away from an apartment that was under investigation for drug activity. Defendant drove up to a residence, and by then police were aware he had a suspended license.

When Gant got out of his car he walked about 10 feet and police immediately arrested him for DWLS. He was immediately handcuffed and secured in the back of a patrol car.

Police officers searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.

Search Incident To Arrest

This kind of traffic related search of a car was a widespread practice throughout the entire country before 2009.

The court held that because Gant could not reach anything inside his car when he was arrested the search was unreasonable and the drugs were suppressed.

The Rule After Gant

The exact rule that came out of Gant was that police may search a vehicle “incident to arrest” only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment when he is arrested.

For a while there after Gant a wave of guns and drugs were excluded from cases. It was like a bean bag tossing contest at the county fair. Judges were throwing everything out.

It didn’t take the Illinois courts long to jump on the bandwagon.

People v. Bridgewater, 235 Ill.2d 85 (2009)

After Gant the 50 state courts quickly adopted the centeral holding from that case.

The Illinois Supreme Court quickly set the tone for the rest of the Illinois court system. The facts in People v. Bridgewater, 235 Ill.2d 85 (2009) were particularly worrisome for police.

The Facts In Bridgewater

The officer attempted to stop a car for speeding and having tinted windows. The driver at first ignored the flashing lights. Eventually, he pulled into a gas station parking lot.

The officer attempted to make contact with the driver. But the driver got out of the car, ignored the officier, and proceeded to go into the store.

The man had to be told numerous times to step outside to produce his driver’s license and proof of insurance. The man eventually walked outside and told the officer he did not have to do anything because he had done nothing wrong.

Man Was Arrested & Car Searched

When the man refused to take his hands out of his coat pockets he finally was arrested for obstructing a peace officer. The man was handcuffed and placed in the squad car.

A search of the man’s car revealed a handgun under the driver’s seat.

The Holding In Bridgewater

The Illinois Supreme Court wasn’t phased at all by any of the legitimate concerns for officer safety.

Instead, the Illinois high court was forced to comply with and fall in line with Gant.

The court noted that this officer could not have reasonably believe evidence of obstructing could be found inside the man’s car. The search could no longer be justified as a search incident to arrest.

The conviction was reversed.

Can Police Still Search A Car Without A Warrant After Gant?

After Gant and Bridgewater, officers in Illinois are indeed left legitimately asking themselves,

“When can I legally search a car after a traffic stop?”

I recently compiled all the relevant case law pertaining to car searches by police. To see more case law on police car searches go here. In this report I rely heavily on Illinois cases, court opinions and scenarios. 

A careful reading of Gant reveals a framework and process that still allows for some warrantless car searches. Gant did not completely rule out all car searches. Even after Gant, an officer can search a car legally when:

(1) An arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle when arrested

(2) It is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense arrested for

(3) There is a legitimate concern a suspect may be armed or have weapons 

(4) There is probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity unrelated to the traffic stop, additionally a warrantless search of a car is permitted if 

(5) A car is lawfully towed or removed from the scene then an inventory search is proper and

(6) Other exigent circumstances require the search of the car.

Gant makes it clear that under the current body of law, “these exceptions together ensure that officers may search a vehicle when genuine safety or evidentiary concerns encountered during the arrest of a vehicle’s recent occupant justify a search.”