The Fourth Amendment requires that any seizure or search by law enforcement be reasonable, which generally requires a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement. In Chimel v. California, the Supreme Court held that incident to a lawful arrest, the police may search the arrestee and areas within her control to secure any weapons that might be used for escape or to resist arrest. United States v. Robinson broadened police authority to search after a lawful custodial arrest.
Robinson was lawfully stopped and arrested for driving without a valid license. The officer searched Robinson and discovered a cigarette pack containing heroin in his coat pocket. Robinson was convicted of a narcotics offense. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that an officer may only fully search an arrestee to uncover further evidence of the crime. If the officer believed the arrestee was armed, he could only perform a limited frisk of the person’s outer clothing.
The Supreme Court disagreed, noting settled precedent that a search incident to a lawful arrest is an exception to the warrant requirement. Although the authority for such a search is based on the necessity to disarm or uncover evidence, the lawful arrest itself provides the authority for the search. The Court established a bright-line rule that full searches are always reasonable.
The Court has consistently reaffirmed this rule in later cases, holding that as long as the custodial arrest was supported by probable cause, a full search incident to that arrest is valid.
MARGARET M. LAWTON
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited