Georgia is a beautiful place for a road trip. From piney forests to coastal islands and from rural farms to urban Atlanta, millions of vehicles traverse the state clocking billions of trip miles every year. In this time of a depressed economy and the resulting pressure on public funding, the Georgia State Patrol (GSP), sheriffs and local police departments have their hands full keeping everyone safe. The public is rightfully grateful for strict enforcement of traffic and safety laws, but sometimes cops in Georgia go too far in searching the vehicles they stop.
Vehicle Privacy Rights
The United States Constitution's Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures unless the authorities obtain valid judicial warrants based on probable cause. Federal and Georgia courts recognize that the constitutional right to privacy extends to your vehicle, although the privacy protection in your car is weaker than the right to privacy in your home.
Because cars are mobile and could drive away with important criminal evidence, and because they are highly regulated by the government, courts have held that in certain carefully defined circumstances police are not required to obtain warrants before searching motor vehicles. However, in Georgia police officers have abused these limited exceptions in order to conduct illegal searches of vehicles.
Search Incident to Arrest
The Supreme Court recognizes an exception to the warrant requirement in a search incident to a proper arrest. Basically the search-incident-to-arrest exception as articulated in Chimel v. California allows an officer to search the space within reach of the arrestee -- the area within his or her immediate control -- for either of two important reasons:
- To prevent the suspect from obtaining a weapon that could harm the arresting officer
- To prevent the arrestee from destroying or concealing evidence
In the 1981 case of New York v. Belton, the Supreme Court analyzed the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement when the person arrested is a driver or passenger of a motor vehicle. The Court looked at whether the lawful search in this circumstance extends to the passenger compartment of the car. The Court reasoned that because things --weapons or evidence -- in the passenger compartment could be grabbed by an arrestee and removed from the car, an officer making such an arrest could legally search the inside of the car, including the interior of a container found in the vehicle, without a warrant.
Arizona v. Gant
In April 2009, the US Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant looked squarely at the Belton rule again, narrowing its reach and giving specific guidance to police about warrantless passenger compartment searches incident to arrest. Gant revisited the Chimel reasoning that an arresting officer could search the area within the immediate control of the arrestee to ensure that he or she could not reach a weapon or interfere with important evidence.
In Gant, the arrested person had been detained for driving with a suspended license, and was safely handcuffed and locked in the back of the squad car while the police searched his automobile without a warrant, finding an illegal drug in a coat in the backseat. Because an arrestee cuffed and locked in another car could not possibly reach into his own passenger compartment, the original reason for the exception to the warrant requirement - the safety of the officer and the preservation of evidence - had evaporated. The court also held that the only legitimate warrantless search in these circumstances is when there is reasonable suspicion of the existence of evidence of the crime for which the person is being arrested.
New Guidance for Police
Gant sends a clear message to Georgia cops and law enforcement across the US: no more "unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person's private effects." If you arrest someone for a traffic offense, you cannot search the car hoping to find drugs or other illegal contraband (unless another exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement exists). You may only reasonably look for evidence related to the traffic offense for which you are arresting the car's occupant.
The decision also gives pointed guidance to Georgia judges. When a defendant has been arrested on a traffic stop, did the cops search the car even after the defendant was removed from physical proximity to the car and could no longer have reached inside the passenger compartment? Was it reasonable for the police to believe the inside of the car could have contained evidence of that traffic offense?
Protect Your Rights
If you were stopped by Georgia law enforcement for a traffic violation and the officer either searched your car after cuffing and removing you from reach of the passenger compartment, or searched the inside of the automobile when there was no reasonable chance of evidence relevant to the traffic violation, that search may have been an unconstitutional violation of your Fourth Amendment rights as interpreted in Gant. Any evidence seized illegally should not be used against you at trial for a drug charge or any other criminal charge.
Be sure to consult with a knowledgeable Georgia criminal defense attorney as soon as possible if you believe you were the victim of an illegal vehicle search. To protect your rights and your liberty, time may be of the essence.