395 U.S. 752 (1969), argued 27 Mar. 1969, decided 23 June 1969 by vote of 6 to 2 (with one vacancy); Stewart for the Court, Harlan concurring, White and Black in dissent. If the police have lawfully arrested a person for some criminal offense, how extensive a warrantless search may they make incident to that arrest? The Supreme Court answered this question in many different ways over a span of about sixty years. These responses ranged all the way from search of the person of the arrestee only to search of the person and the entire premises where the arrest was made. Chimel adopted a position between these extremes and has become the Court's major statement on the limits of a warrantless search pursuant to a lawful arrest.
To appreciate Chimel, it is important to understand the prior state of the law announced in Harris v. United States (1947) and United States v. Rabinowitz (1950). The Harris-Rabinowitz rule had these characteristics: (1) the scope of a permissible search was not limited to the person or areas the arrestee might reach to destroy evidence or obtain a weapon and thus appeared, to cover the entire premises where the arrest was made; (2) it was never made clear whether such a warrantless search was permissible only if there was probable cause evidence of the crime would be found on the premises; and (3) the search was limited in its intensity and length by the items being sought.
Chimel involved a warrantless search of the defendant's home, incident to his arrest there, for the fruits of a burglary. The Court, in overruling Harris and Rabinowitz, first stated that the person of an arrestee may be searched so as to deprive him of weapons by which he could resist arrest or escape and also to prevent his concealment or destruction of evidence. The Court then continued: “And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee's person and the area ‘within his immediate control’—construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence” (p. 763).
The Chimel dissenters offered this rationale for retaining the Harris-Rabinowitz rule: (1) warrantless arrests are generally upheld without regard to whether there was time to get a warrant; (2) this is so because there is very often a risk of flight making acquisition of a warrant impracticable; (3) police thus will often arrest without either an arrest or search warrant, and the arrest itself creates “exigent circumstances,” as if police then leave to get a warrant “there must almost always be a strong possibility that confederates of the arrested man will in the meantime remove the items for which the police have probable cause to search” (p. 774); (4) thus, if after arrest the police have “probable cause to believe that seizable items are on the premises” (p. 773), they should be permitted to make an emergency search without a search warrant.