Law School Case Brief
Thornton v. United States - 541 U.S. 615, 124 S. Ct. 2127 (2004)
Police are allowed to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a lawful custodial arrest of both occupants and recent occupants. While an arrestee's status as a recent occupant may turn on his temporal or spatial relationship to the car at the time of the arrest and search, it certainly does not turn on whether he was inside or outside the car at the moment that the officer first initiated contact with him.
Norfolk, Virginia police officer Deion Nichols learned that the car being operated by defendant Marcus Thornton had license tags that had been issued for another vehicle. Before Nichols could pull over Thornton, Thornton parked and got out of his car. Nichols then parked, accosted Thornton, and arrested him after finding drugs in his pocket. Incident to the arrest, Nichols searched Thornton's car and found a handgun under the driver's seat. Thornton was charged with federal drug and firearms violations. In denying his motion to suppress the firearm as the fruit of an unconstitutional search, the district court found, inter alia, the automobile search valid under New York v. Belton, in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that, when a police officer made a lawful custodial arrest of an automobile's occupant, the Fourth Amendment allowed the officer to search the vehicle's passenger compartment as a contemporaneous incident of arrest. Thornton appealed his conviction, arguing that Belton was limited to situations where the officer initiated contact with an arrestee while he was still in the car. The court of appeals affirmed. Thornton was granted a writ of certiorari.
Is a police officer who made lawful custodial arrest of automobile occupant allowed to contemporaneously search the automobile's passenger compartment even when the officer first made contact with the arrestee after the arrestee left automobile?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that Nichols was allowed to search the passenger compartment of Thornton’s vehicle incident to the lawful custodial arrest of Thornton as a recent occupant of the vehicle. The authority for the vehicle search was not limited to arrests of persons actually occupying vehicles at the time of initial contacts with officers, since the same interests in the safety of the officer and preservation of evidence applied to both occupants and recent occupants of a vehicle. So long as an arrestee was the sort of "recent occupant" of a vehicle, the Court ruled, the Belton Rule permitted officers to search the vehicle incident to the arrest.
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