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US Supreme Court Limits Warrantless Car Searches

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 Tuesday that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of someone they arrest, unless officers have reason to believe that the suspect might try to grab a weapon or destroy evidence in the car, or that the car contains evidence related to the arrest.

The ruling upholds an Arizona Supreme Court ruling that police illegally searched the car of Rodney Joseph Grant, who was arrested for driving with a suspended license. After Grant was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car, officers searched his car and found cocaine in the back seat.

Gant was convicted on drug charges, but appealed, claiming the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The high court echoed the state Supreme Court's reasoning that two prior rulings - Chimel v. California and New York v. Belton - outlined the narrow circumstances under which police could search Gant's car without a warrant. In Chimel, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed warrantless searches when police believe that a suspect might grab a weapon or destroy evidence during the search. In Belton, the justices held that police can search the passenger compartment of a car when making an arrest.

But neither ruling justified the search, Justice Stevens ruled, because Gant was locked in a patrol car, with no way of accessing his vehicle.

Dissenting Justices Breyer, Alito, Roberts and Kennedy argued that precedent requires a broad reading of Belton.

Stevens countered that Gant's case bears little resemblance to Belton.

"The safety and evidentiary interests that supported the search in Belton simply are not present in this case," Stevens wrote. "Indeed, it is hard to imagine two cases that are factually more distinct, as Belton involved one officer confronted by four unsecured arrestees suspected of committing a drug offense, and this case involves several officers confronted with a securely detained arrestee apprehended for driving with a suspended license."

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