Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In first treatment of Gant, Third Circuit applies limited search-incident-to-arrest rule beyond vehicle searches

In its first treatment of Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009), which overruled the Belton rule allowing police to search a suspect's car incident to his arrest even if the suspect no longer has access to the car at the time of the search, the Third Circuit has held that Gant applies to all searches incident to arrest, not just to car searches. The case is United States v. Shakir, No. 09-2665 (3d Cir. Aug. 10, 2010).

The search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement permits police to search an arrestee's person and "grab area," to ensure officer safety and guard against evidence destruction. Fueled by Belton, many courts had expanded the exception to permit search of the arrest area even after the suspect no longer conceivably has access to that area (e.g., when he had already been transported from the scene)-- unmooring the exception from its rationale.

Gant put an end to that, but like Belton, was decided in the vehicle context. The Third Cicuit has now made clear that the newly limited search-incident-to-arrest rule applies in all contexts: police may search only the area reasonably accessible to the arrestee at the time of the search.

In Shakir, the arrestee was handcuffed and guarded by two police officers in a crowded hotel lobby. When arrested, a duffel bag he was carrying dropped to his feet. Applying the Gant standard, the Court held that a search of the bag was permissible because -- although Mr. Shakir was guarded and handcuffed -- the bag remained within his reach in a chaotic public venue.

As the result in Shakir suggests, the Gant standard will be broadly, but perhaps not rigorously, applied. As the Court put it: "th[e] standard requires something more than the mere theoretical possibility that a suspect might access a weapon or evidence, [but] it remains a lenient standard."

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