In what is overwhelmingly being described as a “rare” or “never thought I’d see it in my lifetime” move, SCOTUS yesterday effectively overruled lower courts’ incorrect interpretations of Belton v. New York inArizona v. Gant and restricted the ability of police to search vehicles without reservation.

In an delightfully oddly split 5-4 decision, Justice Stevens (penning the majority) wrote that police could no longer search the interior of a car after the suspect had been secured. The rationale given by Courts (perhaps stemming from an inartful explanation in Belton itself) prior to Gant was that officer safety demanded that they be able to search the interior of a car – the so-called “wingspan”, once a lawful arrest had been made.

Stevens’ majority debunked that:

We do not agree with the contention in JUSTICE ALITO’s dissent (hereinafter dissent) that consideration of police reliance interests requires a different result. Although itappears that the State’s reading of Belton has been widelytaught in police academies and that law enforcement officers have relied on the rule in conducting vehicle searches during the past 28 years,11 many of these searches were not justified by the reasons underlying the Chimel exception. Countless individuals guilty of nothing more serious than a traffic violation have had their constitutional right to the security of their private effects violated as a result. The fact that the law enforcement community may view the State’s version of the Belton rule as an entitlement does not establish the sort of reliance interest that could outweigh the countervailing interestthat all individuals share in having their constitutional rights fully protected. If it is clear that a practice is unlawful, individuals’ interest in its discontinuance clearly outweighs any law enforcement “entitlement” to its persistence.

The experience of the 28 years since we decided Belton has shown that the generalization underpinning the broad reading of that decision is unfounded. We now know that articles inside the passenger compartment are rarely“within ‘the area into which an arrestee might reach,’”453 U. S., at 460, and blind adherence to Belton’s faulty assumption would authorize myriad unconstitutional searches.

The decision is also a great primer on search incident to arrest law (and Bennett’s post does a nice job of recapping the history of it). Notable, however, is another holding within this decision: that police will always be entitled to search the interior of a vehicle if the evidence of the instant offense might be discovered within it. Obviously, this would not apply to traffic violations.

Scalia’s concurrence is also rather notable and packs a lot of punch in a few short pages. Here is a choice quote:

I believe that this standard fails to provide the needed guidance to arresting officers and also leaves much roomfor manipulation, inviting officers to leave the scene unse-cured (at least where dangerous suspects are not involved) in order to conduct a vehicle search. In my view we shouldsimply abandon the Belton-Thornton charade of officer safety and overrule those cases. I would hold that a vehi-cle search incident to arrest is ipso facto “reasonable” only Cite as: 556 U. S. ____ (2009) 3 SCALIA, J., concurring when the object of the search is evidence of the crime forwhich the arrest was made, or of another crime that the officer has probable cause to believe occurred.

As always, he concludes with a bang:

I am therefore confronted with the choice of either leaving the current understanding of Belton and Thornton in effect, or acceding to what seems to me the artificial narrowing of those cases adopted by JUSTICE STEVENS. The latter, as I have said, does not provide thedegree of certainty I think desirable in this field; but the former opens the field to what I think are plainly uncon-stitutional searches—which is the greater evil. I therefore join the opinion of the Court.

For the CT reader, I decided to look up whether our Supreme Court had adopted Belton. My limited, preliminary research left me a little confused, so if you know the answer, leave a comment. Our Supreme Court first confronted Belton in State v. Badgett, 200 Conn. 412 (1986), in which they refused to extendBelton to permit law enforcement to conduct searches of vehicles willy-nilly.

We refuse, however, to extend the “fiction” that the passenger compartment isalways within reach of the arrestee; New York v. Belton, supra, 467 (Brennan, J., dissenting); to circumstances, as here, where the defendant is no longer at the scene of the arrest when the warrantless search was undertaken. It is undisputed  that in this case the defendant was strapped and handcuffed in the police cruiser leaving the scene when the heroin was discovered by officer Kiernan. BecauseBelton does no more than apply Chimel to a “particular and problematic” context, and “in no way alters the fundamental principles established in the Chimel case . . .”; id., 460 n.3; we hold that the right of a police officer to search the vehicle ceases the instant the arrestee departs the scene because the arrestee’s removal forecloses any possibility that he could reach for an article within the vehicle.

This is close to Gant, but not quite. In Badgett, the emphasis was on whether the defendant was on the scene as opposed to secured and unable to access the interior.

But it gets murkier. In States v. Dukes, 209 Conn. 98 (1988), the Court wrote this:

With reference to the legitimacy of the search of the defendant’s vehicle, we conclude that it was proper. There is no need for us in this case to decide what authority the officer would have had under our constitution to search the vehicle for contraband when the only provocation for that was a traffic violation. This is so because once the officer had searched the defendant incident to a lawful arrest and found contraband, he then had probable cause to search the vehicle as he had grounds of the probable guilt of the defendant of a “crime,” as defined under General Statutes § 53a-24. New York v. Belton, supra. The discovery of the contraband in the defendant’s pockets, coupled with all the officer knew at that point, including the fact that he was now presented with a misdemeanant and not a mere traffic violator, gave him probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “contraband” as “any property which is unlawful to produce or possess.” See United States v. Williams, 533 F. Sup. 448, 450 (E.D. Pa. 1982). We point out here that the officer’s ability to search the vehicle is not to be justified as any continuation of his authority to conduct a pat-down search specifically for weapons in order to protect himself, but is justified on the ground that the escalation of the defendant’s involvement had now risen from that of a mere traffic violation to probable guilt of a “crime” as our statutes define that term. Despite the fact that one does not enjoy the same expectation of privacy as to the interior of his motor vehicle as one does in the interior of one’s home, nevertheless, “[t]he word ‘automobile’ is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears.” Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 461, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564, reh. denied, 404 U.S. 874, 92 S. Ct. 26, 30 L. Ed. 2d 120 (1971). The same applies to an “automobile” under article first, § 7, of the constitution of Connecticut. The exception to the warrant requirement in an automobile search demands that the searching officer have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-54, 45 S. Ct. 280, 69 L. Ed. 543 (1925); State v. Badgett, supra, 429. So does article first, § 7, of our constitution. We believe that this officer had, as we have outlined, objective facts upon which could be based  a finding of probable cause to search the defendant’s vehicle for contraband. Accordingly, the motion to suppress was correctly denied by the trial court.

You tell me what that means. (There’s more, but it’s late. I’ll update later.) If you’re interested, see State v. Wilkins, 240 Conn. 489 (1997), specifically the end of the majority decision and all of Berdon’s dissent.