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.”