The United States Supreme Court has recognized that an individuals right to privacy in their vehicle still exists.
While it appeared that the appellate courts were on a path to completely eliminate an individuals right to privacy in their vehicle, the United States Supreme Court unexpectedly reaffirmed the concept of personal privacy and protection against governmental intrusion. In the decision of Arizona v. Grant, filed today, http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-542.pdf, the United States Supreme Court condemned the practice of courts sanctioning law enforcement searches of vehicles after an occupant has been placed under arrest for an offense unrelated to the search. For years in Iowa, law enforcement would routinely arrest occupants of a vehicle on outstanding warrants or traffic violations and then search the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle, including any and all containers in that area, pursuant to that otherwise lawful arrest. Many times these subsequent searches would lead to additional charges included illegal possession of firearms or other weapons or drug offenses. This practice has long been criticized by defense lawyers, academics and even members of various appellate courts including the United States Supreme Court as not falling within the purpose of the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement. The purpose behind the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement has always been officer safety, to prevent an individual from arming themselves and injuring officers, and also to preserve evidence. Neither one of these purposes are served when a vehicle is searched after an occupant has been arrested, handcuffed, and secured either on the side of the road or in the rear of a squad car. Our Supreme Court has finally put an end to this practice.
The United States Supreme Court specifically held that the search incident to arrest rationale "authorizes police to 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." In a footnote, the Supreme Court then recognized that "Because officers have many means of ensuring the safe arrest of vehicle occupants, it will be the rare case in which an officer is unable to fully effectuate an arrest so that a real possibility of access to the arrestee's vehicle remains." fn4. In reaching its ultimate conclusion however, the Court did clarify that it is the offense for which the person is being arrested that makes all the difference. They left it open 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." Thus, if the person is arrested for a traffic violation or outstanding warrant, the police may not search the vehicle incident to that arrest. However, if the person is arrested for a drug offense and the officers have reason to believe that additional evidence of the drug offense may be present in the vehicle, they may then search the interior of the vehicle without a warrant in order to "secure potential evidence."
The rule announced today makes perfect sense and prevents officers in abusing their authority to arrest for even minor violations as a facade or excuse to search the interior of the persons vehicle. As Justice Stevens pointed out: "A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals." While there are numerous other exceptions that law enforcement may attempt to rely upon to search a vehicle, one has been narrowed and the Court has taken a large step in realing in prior decisions that have severely limited an individuals reasonable expectation of privacy.