A routine drug arrest in Tucson, Ariz., will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the circumstances in which police officers who do not have a warrant can search the vehicle of a person who is under arrest, reports the New York Times. The justices agreed on Monday to review the case of Rodney Joseph Gant, whose 1999 arrest raised questions that have divided Arizona courts. State officials are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling last July by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that a search of Gant's car violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that the evidence must therefore be thrown out. Courts at all levels have wrestled over the years with the circumstances under which the police can search cars (and houses and people) without warrants.
Two police officers went to a Tucson house in August 1999 after getting a tip about drug activity there. They had a brief conversation with Gant, then left. A record check revealed that Gant’s was wanted on a warrant for driving with a suspended license. Officers returned to the house that evening, and Gant drove up and parked in his driveway. Gant was arrested a few moments after he got out of his car. He was handcuffed and locked in the back of a patrol car. A search of Gant's car turned up a plastic bag containing cocaine. After Gant was convicted of possession of a drug with intent to sell plus possession of drug paraphernalia, his lawyers appealed, asserting there had been no justification for the warrantless search of his vehicle. The Arizona high court agreed, holding that because Gant had been cuffed and the scene was secure, “neither a concern for officer safety nor the preservation of evidence justified the warrantless search of Gant's car.”