Arizona Vehicle Searches

If you’ve driven on Arizona’s interstates – I-17, I-40, and I-10 – you’ve probably seen Arizona DPS officers pulling over cars and trucks. But have you ever seen them tearing apart a car as though they were looking for gold? It happens more often than you think. So let’s raise the question:

How is it that a police officer found, say, ten pounds of marijuana hidden in vacuum-packaged containers in secret compartments of luggage in the trunk of a person’s car?

It used to be that police officers could perform a “search incident to arrest” of your vehicle, including anywhere there may be weapons. It didn’t matter that the arrested person was handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car, and nowhere near the “weapons” in his car. The police would still go looking for “weapons” and, of course, find every piece of contraband possible, resulting in numerous felony drug charges. This was all without consent, without a search warrant, and without probable cause – in some cases – of there existing drugs in the vehicle.

A major United States Supreme Court case changed that two years ago. It’s called Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009). In Gant, the Supreme Court changed previous precedent, now holding that the police can still perform a “search incident to arrest” of the passenger compartment of a vehicle (as long as an occupant was arrested), but only where the arrestee could access the vehicle and is not handcuffed and detained in a safe place.

The Gant case also allows a search of the vehicle if the object of the search relates to the actual arrest. This is a key point. Here is what Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, in a concurring opinion, “I would hold that a vehicle search incident to arrest is ipso facto ‘reasonable’ only when the object of the search is evidence of the crime for which the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.”

So many people were getting arrested for having an expired driver’s license, and yet the police were searching the vehicle inside and out for weapons and drugs. What do weapons and drugs have to do with the crime of driving on an invalid license? Nothing. And now, those searches are unconstitutional thanks to Arizona v. Gant.

INVENTORY SEARCHES

Of course, the police have a way around Gant. Inventory searches differ from Gant searches. Inventory searches are performed not to look for weapons or contraband but to protect… YOU! The purpose of an inventory search is to secure and document all of your property contained in the vehicle before it is impounded. That way, nothing will be lost or stolen. And if the police officers just so happen to find contraband while performing an inventory search, yes you will be charged with a crime.

Inventory searches are challengeable under many circumstances. Just because an officer claims he is doing, or did, an inventory search does not mean it was legal and constitutional. Like all other areas of the law, inventory searches are subject to litigation, argument, and ultimately, can be the key to you or your loved one’s freedom from jail.

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