Monday, February 25, 2008

Supremes to review Arizona search case

Says the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide when police without a warrant can search the vehicle of a person who is under arrest.

Rodney Joseph Gant was handcuffed, seated in the back of a patrol car and under police supervision when Tucson, Ariz., police officers searched his car.

A sharply divided Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the search violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment. The state asking the U.S. high court to overturn that ruling.

The justices said they will hear the case next fall to decide whether officers must demonstrate a threat to their safety or the need to preserve evidence to justify a warrantless search in cases like Gant's.

On its face, the Arizona Supreme Court decision makes excellent sense. Gant was arrested "about 10 feet away from his parked car." Secured as he was he posed no threat to police and there was nothing other than curiosity to draw law enforcement attention to his vehicle. It seems like a no-brainer to say that police had no business searching the car without a warrant.

It seems, I say but we're talking about cars, the Fourth Amendment and the Supreme Court -- three things that don't mix well.

In Maryland v. Dyson, the Supreme Court held that police can pretty much search automobiles at will. In Florida v. White the court ruled that a parked car can be seized by police without a warrant if they believe (but haven't legally proved) it is "contraband" under local law. There are other cases along these lines, too, but the gist is that, when it comes to automobiles, the Fourth Amendment is dressed-up, rouged and lying in a pine box.

Will the fact that Gant was arrested ten feet from the car make a difference?

I wouldn't count on it, unless the court is set to make a dramatic break with the trend of its recent rulings (Dyson and White both date to 1998). And don't look to Arizona law to provide a bulwark against weakened federal search and seizure protection -- the Arizona Supreme Court's Gant decision (PDF) was based on the Fourth Amendment and federal precedent, so stronger state protections won't be forthcoming.

I'm afraid that we're due for another Supreme Court ruling that we're all ripe for the plucking by the nearest uniformed government employee the moment we set foot in our cars.

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