Search Incident to Arrest – Thornton v. United States

In Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004), the United States Supreme Court again expanded the authority of law enforcement officers to conduct searches incident to a lawful arrest. In Thornton the Court extended the ruling of New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), to include “recent occupants” of vehicles.

Marcus Thornton was stopped by a police officer who had noticed that the license plate on Thornton’s Lincoln Town Car belonged to a Chevy two-door car. Thornton had parked his car and had walked away from the car before he was stopped by the officer. During his conversation with Thornton, the officer asked if he could search Thornton. Thornton consented, and during the search, the officer found two baggies containing illegal drugs. The officer arrested Thornton and then searched his vehicle. During the course of the search, the officer found a gun inside the vehicle. Thornton was subsequently charged and convicted of federal drug and firearms offenses.

The Court held that Belton governs even when an officer does not make contact until after the person arrested has left the vehicle. The Court ruled that Belton allows police to search a car’s passenger compartment incident to a lawful arrest of both “occupants” and “recent occupants.”

Search Incident to Arrest – New York v. Belton

In 1981, the United States Supreme Court further expanded the authority of law enforcement officers to conduct searches incident to a lawful arrest. In the case before the Court, A New York state police officer pulled over a vehicle traveling at an excessive rate of speed. The vehicle had four occupants, including Roger Belton. During the course of the traffic stop, the police officer smelled burnt marijuana and saw an envelope marked “Supergold” on the floor of the vehicle that he associated with marihuana. He ordered the men out of the vehicle and placed them under arrest for possession of marijuana. He split them up and then picked up the envelope and found that it contained marihuana. He then gave each occupant of the vehicle a Miranda warning and searched each of them. He then searched the passenger compartment of the vehicle and found Belton’s leather jacket. He found cocaine in one of the pockets of the jacket. Belton was subsequently charged with the offense of possession of a controlled substance.

The Supreme Court held that the search of Belton’s jacket was a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest, and hence did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The jacket, being located inside the passenger compartment of the car, was “within the arrestee’s immediate control” within the meaning of Chimel v. California, 395 U. S. 752, wherein it was held that a lawful custodial arrest creates a situation justifying the contemporaneous warrantless search of the arrestee and of the immediately surrounding area. Not only may the police search the passenger compartment of the car in such circumstances, they may also examine the contents of any containers found in the passenger compartment. And such a container may be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container, but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981).