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Cuff, stuff, search.

January 24, 2010

Ruling challenges cops

Court decision puts an end to many vehicle searches

Cuff, stuff, search.

That’s been a mantra for law-enforcement officers in East Tennessee and across the nation for more than a quarter century.

No more.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court put the brakes on the routine practice of what’s known as a “vehicle search incident to arrest,” in which a suspect is handcuffed and stuffed in the back of a cruiser and the suspect’s vehicle searched without a warrant or probable cause.

“A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense, when there is no basis for believing evidence of the offense might be found in the vehicle, creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote.

“I think it’s one of those watershed events,” Knoxville Assistant Law Director Lisa Hatfield said.

The fallout

Hatfield had her eye on Arizona vs. Gant when the nation’s high court agreed to use it to revisit a 1981 decision that cited officer safety concerns as justification for warrantless searches of arrestees’ cars. She knew just how valuable a law-enforcement tool such searches had become.

Such searches, she noted, had turned up a veritable treasure trove of criminal cases against suspects initially wanted on minor offenses. Drugs, guns, burglary tools, robbery gear, murder weapons – all have been discovered through vehicle searches incident to arrest.

The Gant decision, served up months ago, changed all that.

“It used to be a given,” Hatfield said. “Now searches incident to arrest are off the table. It’s no longer an excuse (police) can use to search a car without more.”

Hatfield’s response to the ruling was immediate.

“We went out (to the Knoxville Police Department) and gave a training at in-service, and that was videotaped to be shown to all the roll calls because it was so huge,” she said.

Word since has spread. The Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy, which trains police recruits for most rural agencies, has updated recruit training on the issue and given an update on the case to groups, including a statewide training officers association and the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, spokeswoman Shannon Ashford said.

The Knox County Sheriff’s Department, which, like KPD, has its own academy, also is retraining its deputies, said spokeswoman Martha Dooley.

“They’ve been teaching it in roll call,” she said. “They’re going to teach it at in-service.”

The debate

The search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment’s ban on warrantless searches has its roots in a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as New York vs. Belton, a 28-year-old case in which a New York officer, outnumbered by a vehicle’s occupants, searched the entire car for weapons that might be “within arm’s reach” of the arrestee. The high court upheld the validity of the search.

“Belton never implicitly stated this is permissible in every case,” Knoxville defense attorney Stephen Ross Johnson noted.

But the Belton decision and its officer safety concerns soon led to judicial carte blanche approval for warrantless vehicle searches – even when the occupants were safely handcuffed and, in some cases, the arrestee already whisked off to jail, Johnson noted.

It became regarded as a law-enforcement right.

Many defense attorneys and legal scholars disagreed, arguing that judges nationwide were taking the Belton decision too far.

Count Federal Defender Beth Ford, whose staff defends poor people in East Tennessee’s federal court, among that number.

“We don’t think (the Gant decision) is a change in the law,” Ford said. “We think that’s what the law has been.”

It was that type of concern that led the nation’s high court to revisit Belton via the Gant case. The majority opinion ruled that judges indeed had stretched the Belton decision beyond its original intent – to protect an officer from a suspect able to grab a weapon from the car in which he or she is arrested.

“I think it should cause courts to step back and follow what the Supreme Court said the law was already,” Ford said.

The scope

U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan already has, allowing Christopher Amos to withdraw his guilty plea as a result of the Gant decision. Amos was charged with being a felon in possession of a gun after officers conducted a vehicle search incident to arrest when Amos and others in the car were already handcuffed.

Amos was charged before the Gant decision was handed down.

“What’s interesting is the issue of, ‘How does this apply to cases that occurred before Gant?’ ” Johnson said.

The jury is still out. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal cases in Tennessee and three surrounding states, recently opined that the Gant decision could be applied to cases that cropped up as many as two years before the high court ruled.

Johnson said Tennessee’s state court system has yet to address the issue.

“In Tennessee, it’s still an open question,” he said.

The future

John Gill, special counsel to Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols, said state prosecutors are not yet seeing any legal fallout from the Gant decision. He noted that inventory searches, in which a car is impounded and its contents catalogued, remain legally OK.

“Once officers are well-trained in it, it will have a very narrow impact,” Gill said.

Johnson also pointed out that the high court listed limited exceptions to the ban on routine vehicle searches. An officer could, for instance, search a car for drugs if the arrestee is being busted for a drug offense.

But Hatmaker said she didn’t offer KPD officers any loopholes because she wanted to ensure they follow the law and, thereby, build solid cases.

“There’s not a plan B,” she said.

She knows, however, that the Gant decision could make the jobs of the area’s law enforcers tougher.

“It takes away one of the tools for searching that they had become accustomed to, that was a fundamental part of police activities,” she said. “To take that arrow out of that quiver is a tough adjustment.”

Don’t expect defense attorney Johnson to shed tears for them, though.

“The Constitution doesn’t exist to make law enforcement easy,” he said. “It just means they have to be smarter in how they carry out their duties.”

Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.

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