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Fourth Circuit Extends Gant’s Automobile Search-Incident-to-Arrest Framework to Searches of Non-Vehicular Containers

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit extended the holding in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009) (vehicle may be searched incident to arrest without a warrant if police reasonably believe that the arrestee “could have accessed his car at the time of the search”), to a search of an arrestee’s backpack.

Officer Derek Richardson stopped a vehicle driven by Howard Davis because of a suspected tinted windows violation. A check of Davis’ driver’s license revealed he “had a history of felony drug charges and convictions.” Shortly after Officers David Veiling and Paul Boyd arrived, Davis drove off without his driver’s license.

The officers chased Davis through a residential neighborhood until he reached a dead-end cul-de-sac where he drove into a backyard. Davis then fled on foot, carrying a backpack. Eventually, the officers caught up with him.

Richardson drew his service weapon and ordered Davis to the ground. Davis dropped the backpack and lay face down on the ground. Richardson patted Davis down and found a large amount of cash on his person. He handcuffed Davis with his hands behind his back and arrested him for “several traffic violations, including felony flee to elude.”

Richardson then unzipped the closed backpack and discovered “large amounts of cash and two plastic bags containing what appeared to be cocaine.” Officers then searched Davis’ vehicle, recovering bundles of cash and drug paraphernalia. They also recovered a handgun where a witness said Davis had thrown it.

Davis was charged with drug and firearms related charges. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence, arguing the officers’ warrantless search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied the motion. A jury convicted him, and he appealed the denial of his suppression motion.

The Fourth Circuit observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment guarantees ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’” A warrantless search by police is invalid unless it falls within one of the narrow and well-delineated exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. United States v. Ferebee, 957 F.3d 406 (4th Cir. 2020). While one exception to the warrant requirement authorizes searches incident to lawful arrest, United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), the Government bears the burden of proof in justifying a warrantless search or seizure. United States v. McGee, 736 F.3d 263 (4th Cir. 2013).

The search-incident-to-arrest exception allows arresting officers to search the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control. Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011). The U.S. Supreme Court has instructed that this is a reasonable search (1) in order to remove any weapons that the arrestee might seek to use in order to resist arrest or escape and (2) in order to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence. Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969). In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that “courts have found no workable definition of ‘the area within the immediate control of an arrestee’ when that area arguably includes the interior of an automobile and the arrestee is its recent occupant,” so the High Court concluded that “when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.”

Over time, lower courts and police officers began treating the Belton decision as authorizing police to search a vehicle incident to arrest instead of as an exception to the warrant requirement. Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004). In Gant, officers arrested the defendant for driving with a suspended license. After handcuffing him and placing him in the back seat of a patrol car, officers searched his vehicle and found drugs and a firearm. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can “search a vehicle incident to arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” or “circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search ... when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Gant.

After reviewing the governing line of case law, the Fourth Circuit announced that Gant “applies to searches of non-vehicular containers and conclude that police officers can conduct warrantless searches of non-vehicular containers incident to a lawful arrest ‘only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the [container] at the time of the search.’” Gant. The Fourth Circuit noted that the Third, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have all reached the same conclusion. See United States v. Shakir, 616 F.3d 315 (3d Cir. 2010); United States v. Cook, 808 F.3d 1195 (9th Cir. 2015); United States v. Knapp, 917 F.3d 1161 (10th Cir. 2019). 

Applying the reasoning of Gant to the instant case, the Court observed that Davis was facedown on the ground handcuffed with his hands behind his back. He could not access the backpack to obtain a weapon or destroy evidence. And the traffic infractions for which he was arrested did not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that evidence related to those crimes would be found in the backpack, according to the Court. Consequently, The Court ruled that the search of his backpack was unlawful. Since it was the unlawful search of the backpack that revealed the contraband which in turn gave probable cause to search Davis’ vehicle, the search of the vehicle was also unreasonable, ruled the Court. Thus, the Court held that the district court erred when it concluded the warrantless search of Davis’ backpack and vehicle were permissible.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting the motion to suppress and for any other proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: United States v. Davis, 997 F.3d 191 (4th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

United States v. Davis

United States v. Knapp

United States v. Cook

United States v. Shakir



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