Quick Summary: Gant Exception allows for automobile search incident to arrest with reasonable suspicion that even of the crime for which an occupant has been arrested will be found in the car.

A United States Marshals Fugitive Task Force located Norman, wanted for an outstanding warrant, in a car in South Carolina. They arrested Norman and searched him incident to arrest finding a large amount of cash and a cellphone in his pocket. The officers also removed and searched the sole passenger (Harrison) and found a baggie in her hair which she admitted contained cocaine residue. The passenger (Harrison) was arrested for possession of the cocaine. The officers also saw more cash on the car floorboard as well as a small tied up “quarter baggie” by the stick shift.  At this point the officers searched the car finding cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, and a firearm. Norman was arrested for possession with intent to distribute and felon in possession of a firearm.

Norman sought to have the evidence excluded as fruits of an unlawful search of the vehicle. The Fourth Circuit held that the warrantless search of the vehicle was reasonable as a search incident to arrest under the Gant Exception. Police may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle “incident to a lawful arrest when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.” Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 343 (2009). After finding a bag of white powder in Harrison’s hair — which she admitted to the arresting officer was cocaine—and observing a suspicious baggie and a large amount of cash in plain view, the officers had a “reasonable basis” to believe they might find additional drugs in the Camry in which Harrison, an arrestee, was a passenger.

Editor’s Note:  Cases where automobiles are searched incident to arrest under the Gant Exception are rare, mostly because the Automobile Exception is used if the officers have probable cause. But this is a good example of where the facts articulated might not have created probable cause, but certainly created a reasonable suspicion.  Remember, although the Supreme Court in Gant used the term “reasonable basis to believe” for the Gant Exception to be applicable, the lower courts have held this to be more akin to reasonable suspicion than probable cause. Otherwise, the Gant Exception would be meaningless because the Automobile Exception would already be applicable.

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