453 U.S. 454 (1981), argued 27 Apr. 1981, decided 1 July 1981 by vote of 6 to 3; Stewart for the Court, Brennan and White in dissent. In this case, six members of the Supreme Court agreed to expand the constitutionally permissible scope of a warrantless automobile search incident to a lawful custodial arrest. The circumstances here are similar to many automobile search cases. After the car was stopped for speeding, the occupants were removed and arrested when the police detected the odor of marijuana. A policeman searched the back seat of the car, found a jacket belonging to Belton, unzipped one of the pockets and discovered cocaine. At his trial, Belton moved to suppress admission of the cocaine, arguing that it had been seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart argued that to guide police officers it was necessary to adopt the “single familiar standard” articulated in Chimel v. California (1969). In Chimel, the Court said that a lawful custodial arrest justifies a search of the immediate surrounding areas without a warrant. Justice Stewart reasoned that because the jacket was located inside the car where Belton had been just before his arrest, the jacket was “within the arrestee's immediate control” (even though Belton and his companions were no longer in or near the automobile).
The dissenting justices disputed this interpretation of Chimel, arguing that its policy justifications for a warrantless search (i.e., to insure the safety of the arresting officer and to prevent evidence from being concealed or destroyed) were deliberately narrow and did not justify the latitude given police officers in this case. The issue in Chimel, they concluded, was not whether the arrestee could ever have reached the area that was searched, but whether he could have reached it at the time of the arrest and search.
Christine B. Harrington