Even in Los Angeles, a man's car isn't his castle. For reasons of public safety, motorists have to put up with some invasions of privacy that the law doesn't make them endure at home. But the U.S. Supreme Court reassuringly ruled Tuesday that even when the site of a search has wheels, police must abide by the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Since 1981, the court has allowed police to search a suspect's vehicle "incident to his arrest," even without a warrant. The justification for such an exception is obvious: During an arrest, a suspect may reach for a concealed weapon or try to destroy evidence. But with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, police have exploited the exception to conduct open-ended searches.
That was the case with an Arizona man named Rodney Gant. In 1999, Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed and locked inside a police car. While he was safely disposed of, officers searched his car. Not for the first time, an illegal search yielded results. Police found cocaine inside the pocket of a jacket in the back seat, and Gant was convicted of drug possession. The Arizona Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that the evidence should have been excluded.