WASHINGTON — Police officers may search a parked car if they have arrested its driver or a passenger nearby, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 7-2 decision expands the area in which an arrest can trigger a car search without a warrant.
In the past, the Supreme Court ruled that once an officer arrests someone in a car, he may search the vehicle to check for weapons. This rule allows police to protect themselves and ensure their safety, the court said in a 1981 ruling.
Until Monday, however, it had been unclear whether officers could search a car if the driver or passenger was arrested outside or away from the vehicle.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said it made sense to allow officers to search a car whenever they arrest a person who has parked and walked away from his vehicle.
"In all relevant respects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of someone who is inside the vehicle," he said.
The ruling upheld a prison sentence for a Virginia man who was carrying a gun in his car. An officer in Norfolk, Va., saw a man driving suspiciously, and when the officer checked the license plate, he found it was registered to a 1982 Chevy, not the Lincoln Town Car he was following.
When the driver, Marcus Thornton, parked his car and began to walk away, the officer stopped him and asked him for his driver's license. He then patted down Thornton and felt something in his left pocket, which proved to be bags of marijuana and a bag of crack cocaine.
He arrested Thorton and searched his car, in which he found a handgun. Thornton's lawyer challenged the car search as unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment.
The Supreme Court upheld the search Monday in Thornton vs. U.S.
"So long as the arrestee is the sort of 'recent occupant' of the vehicle such as [Thornton] was here, officers may search that vehicle incident to the arrest," the chief justice said.
Despite the lopsided vote, several justices questioned the notion that the search of the car was needed to protect the officer's safety. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in a concurring opinion, Thornton was handcuffed in a police cruiser when one officer went to examine the inside of his car.
Only John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter dissented. They said police should be required to get a search warrant before inspecting the interior of the car.
Boston University law professor Tracey Maclin said the ruling clarifies the law. "It's important because this is a common situation.
But it is not a large extension of the police authority because this person was right next to his car. It's not as though he was several blocks away," said Maclin, who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a second ruling, the justices gave an Alabama man a chance to challenge the state's plan to give him a lethal injection by cutting into his arm.
The inmate, David Nelson, was three days away from execution in October when the high court agreed to hear his appeal. Because of Nelson's long history of drug use, Alabama authorities said they could not inject a needle into his veins. Instead, they said they would have a doctor make a two-inch incision to "access" his veins. This was referred to as a "cut down" procedure.
When Nelson challenged that procedure as cruel and unusual, the state courts and lower federal courts said the law did not permit new, last-minute challenges in death penalty cases.
The Supreme Court disagreed, and in a narrowly written opinion said Nelson may file an appeal that argued this medical procedure may not be used against a prisoner, regardless of whether he was facing execution.