There are some rights that we in Morristown tend to take for granted. Among these is the protection against an illegal search and seizure afforded by the Fourth Amendment. Many of us grew up with a certain understanding of how this protection applied in situations like a traffic stop. But some changes to the law in the not-so-distant past may be worth reviewing for our readers, should they be dealing with a scenario like the one we discussed in our last post.
Since the early eighties, it was essentially the norm that police could search a vehicle if they had arrested one of its occupants. This relatively broad authority continued until 2009 when a driver in the southwestern United States was arrested and held in the back of a squad car. Police proceeded to search his vehicle, finding a firearm and illegal drugs. He was convicted on drug charges, but appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled in a way that narrowed the authority police had long enjoyed. Because the defendant didn’t have access to his car during the search — “within reaching distance” according to the ruling — the search was in violation of his rights. The purported evidence was thrown out and the conviction overturned.
While this does provide some protection to those suspected of crimes and hold police to a higher standard, it’s important to recognize (as our last post illustrated) that one can’t simply decline a search and go about one’s business. Police in Morris County may have a car impounded while a search warrant is obtained. But if a defendant’s vehicle is searched while that person is in the back of a police car, for example, or otherwise cannot reach his or her vehicle, the validity of the search may be challenged in court.