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Vehicle Searches Incident to Arrest

When can police officers search a vehicle? When they are arresting the occupant of the vehicle. In 1981, the United States Supreme Court in the case of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, stated “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passengers compartment of that automobile and any containers therein.” The court rendered this decision based upon a “generalization that articles inside the relatively narrow passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally within the area in to which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary item.”  Fran Simmel v. California 395 U.S. 763.

In a decision of April 2009, the United States Supreme Court in the case of Arizona v. Grant narrowed the circumstances under which there can be a search incident to arrest. In the Grant decision the United States Supreme Court stated that police may now search a vehicle incident to the arrest of the occupant of the vehicle only if the person being arrested is “unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search” or “it is reasonable to believe the (the passenger compartment) contains evidence of the arrest.”

The court stated in this decision “when the justifications are absent, a search of the arrestee’s vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies.”

In the a situation where the police arrest an individual driving a vehicle, place him custody, in hand cuffs and remove him from the vehicle and place him in the squad car there would be no reason for the police to engage in a warrantless search of the occupants vehicle unless a crime was committed involving contraband or a gun and police were searching for the contraband or gun.

Unfortunately this decision has not filtered down to most police organizations. Police routinely search vehicles when they put an occupant under arrest without justification. The prosecutors then seek to use any evidence obtained from said searches in the prosecution of the driver or other occupant of the vehicle. Based on this new United States Supreme Court decision, motions can be made to preclude the entry into evidence of material obtained through improper searches. If you or a friend or family member have been arrested and a vehicle was improperly searched feel free to give our office a call at 1-800-344-6431 or email us.

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