Sometimes the federal courts just get it wrong, even after the Supreme Court issues a ruling intended to clarify the issues. So the Supreme Court has to revisit to issue to set the federal courts straight. That happened this week. Moral of the story: Supreme Court decisions are what the Supreme Court says they are
The case is Arizona v. Gant, decided on April 21. In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the Supreme Court said that, upon arrest, the police may conduct a warrantless search in any area within your immediate control. Then, in Belton v. New York, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), the Supreme Court reached a similar holding in the context of warrantless vehicle searches. The idea is that the police have the right to search any area within the arrestee's reach in order to prevent him from grabbing a weapon or destroying evidence.
Over the years, though, federal courts began interpreting Belton quite broadly, finding that the police can search any area within the arrestee's reach at the time of the arrest, even if at the time of the search the arrestee was nowhere near the search area. As Justice Stevens observes in Arizona v. Gant, the Belton precedent "has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search." Moreover, the Supreme Court majority in Gant notes, "Justice Scalia has similarly noted that, although it is improbable that an arrestee could gain access to weapons stored in his vehicle after he has been handcuffed and secured in the backseat of a patrol car, cases allowing a search in this precise factual scenario ... are legion."
So here is the law of police searches in the context of arrests, as set forth by the Supreme Court this week: the police may "search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search." The Court throws in another permissible search practice: "we also conclude that circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." The second search practice was first proposed in a concurrence by Justice Scalia in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004). It is now the law of the land.
So what about the fact that police agencies around the country have trained officers to seach vehicles on the basis of the courts' flawed interpretation of Supreme Court precedent? The Supreme Court is not about to alter its rulings on that basis. Justice Stevens writes, "we have never relied on stare decisis to justify the continuance of an unconstotitional police practice."