Thursday, July 11, 2013

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

The following question was asked by a reader of the blog in the comments:

So why don't the police always use the automobile exception to get access to the trunk following a constitutional arrest? Because from what I understand, the standard to use the automobile exception is "probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime" and one of the standards to trigger the search incident to constitutional arrest is "the police reasonably believe that evidence of the offense for which the person was arrested may be found in th vehicle" which are basically the same.


It's a good question, and an important distinction. The standard you've stated ("probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime") is correct, but keep in mind that arresting someone doesn't always lead to satisfaction of that standard. Certainly, it might be true that when you arrest someone, you are arresting him because you have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime (in which case, yes, you can search the entire car, but the basis for that search would be the automobile exception rather than a search incident to a lawful arrest).

But it also might be true that you are arresting someone in a car because you believe the person had been drinking prior to getting into the car and then driving (for example). In that situation, the car itself has very little do with the arrest other than the fact that the person arrested happens to have been in the car while arrested. The main point to take away is that by arresting someone you are allowed to search his/her wingspan, or any area in which the person might reach for a weapon, or destroy evidence. That applies inside or outside of a car. But when arresting someone inside a car, the police won't always have the probable cause required for an entire search of the car, and in those circumstances where they do not, they are limited to where they may search.

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