Arizona v. Gant: The Good, the Bad, and the Meaning of 'Reasonable Belief'
Geoffrey S. Corn
South Texas College of Law
February 23, 2012
Reasonable belief. Use of this phrase by the Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant transformed what could have been a clear and logical holding into a source of potential uncertainty. This uncertainty has forced lower courts to struggle in determining the reasonableness of police automobile searches subsequent to the arrest of a vehicle occupant, a manifestation of how Gant blurred what was among the brightest lines in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Furthermore, while on the surface Gant’s constriction of authority to search an automobile incident to lawful arrest may seem to enhance the protection of privacy, this a tenuous conclusion. Instead, by endorsing a wholly new automobile search authority triggered by reasonable belief that crime related to the offense of arrest may be found the car, police search authority will in many cases actually be expanded.
This article highlights why ‘reasonable belief’ that evidence related to the arrest may be in the automobile operates as a procedural tether linking the probable cause for the arrest to the search for that evidence. In support of this interpretation, the article explains why treating reasonable belief as a synonym for reasonable suspicion is palpably hostile to the most fundamental principle of search law: pure evidentiary searches may only be reasonable when based on probable cause. Accordingly, reasonable belief within the meaning of Gant is a wholly new source of search authority, distinct both from the traditional authority granted by a search incident to a lawful arrest (SITLA) and the authority granted by probable cause. Finally, the article explains why viewing the Court’s decision in Gant as a procedural tether -- albeit one with necessary substantive overtones -- is neither the hindrance to police procedure nor the detriment to the public good that it might appear to be at first glance.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 39
Date posted: February 25, 2012 ; Last revised: September 26, 2012