New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981)

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

When the occupant of an automobile is subjected to a lawful custodial arrest, does the constitutionally permissible scope of a search incident to his arrest include the passenger compartment of the automobile in which he was riding?  That is the question at issue in the present case.


On April 9, 1978, Trooper Douglas Nicot, a New York State policeman driving an unmarked car on the New York Thruway, was passed by another automobile traveling at an excessive rate of speed.  Nicot gave chase, overtook the speeding vehicle, and ordered its driver to pull it over to the side of the road and stop.  There were four men in the car, one of whom was Roger Belton, the respondent in this case.  The policeman asked to see the driver’s license and automobile registration, and discovered that none of the men owned the vehicle or was related to its owner.  Meanwhile, the policeman had smelled burnt marihuana and had seen on the floor of the car an envelope marked “Supergold” that he associated with marihuana.

He therefore directed the men to get out of the car, and placed them under arrest for the unlawful possession of marihuana.  He patted down each of the men and “split them up into four separate areas of the Thruway at this time so they would not be in physical touching area of each other.”  He then picked up the envelope marked “Supergold” and found that it contained marihuana.  After giving the arrestees the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, the state policeman searched each one of them.  He then searched the passenger compartment of the car.  On the back seat he found a black leather jacket belonging to Belton.  He unzipped one of the pockets of the jacket and discovered cocaine.  Placing the jacket in his automobile, he drove the four arrestees to a nearby police station.

Belton was subsequently indicted for criminal possession of a controlled substance.  In the trial court he moved that the cocaine the trooper had seized from the jacket pocket be suppressed.  The court denied the motion.  Belton then pleaded guilty to a lesser included offense, but preserved his claim that the cocaine had been seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the search and seizure, reasoning that “once defendant was validly arrested for possession of marihuana, the officer was justified in searching the immediate area for other contraband.”

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “a warrantless search of the zippered pockets of an inaccessible jacket may not be upheld as a search incident to a lawful arrest where there is no longer any danger that the arrestee or a confederate might gain access to the article.”  Two judges dissented.  They pointed out that the “search was conducted by a lone peace officer who was in the process of arresting four unknown individuals whom he had stopped in a speeding car owned by none of them and apparently containing an uncertain quantity of a controlled substance.  The suspects were standing by the side of the car as the officer gave it a quick check to confirm his suspicions before attempting to transport them to police headquarters . . . .”  We granted certiorari to consider the constitutionally permissible scope of a search in circumstances such as these.


It is a first principle of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that the police may not conduct a search unless they first convince a neutral magistrate that there is probable cause to do so.  This Court has recognized, however, that “the exigencies of the situation” may sometimes make exemption from the warrant requirement “imperative.”  Specifically, the Court held in Chimel v. California that a lawful custodial arrest creates a situation which justifies the contemporaneous search without a warrant of the person arrested and of the immediately surrounding area.  Such searches have long been considered valid because of the need “to remove any weapons that [the arrestee] might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape” and the need to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence.

The Court’s opinion in Chimel emphasized the principle that, as the Court had said in Terry v. Ohio “the scope of a search must be ‘strictly tied to and justified by’ the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible.”  Thus while the Court in Chimel found “ample justification” for a search of “the area from within which an arrestee might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence,” the Court found “no comparable justification . . . for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs—or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself.”

Although the principle that limits a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest may be stated clearly enough, courts have discovered the principle difficult to apply in specific cases.  Yet, as one commentator has pointed out, the protection of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments “can only be realized if the police are acting under a set of rules which, in most instances, makes it possible to reach a correct determination beforehand as to whether an invasion of privacy is justified in the interest of law enforcement.”  This is because

“Fourth Amendment doctrine, given force and effect by the exclusionary rule, is primarily intended to regulate the police in their day-to-day activities and thus ought to be expressed in terms that are readily applicable by the police in the context of the law enforcement activities in which they are necessarily engaged.  A highly sophisticated set of rules, qualified by all sorts of ifs, ands, and buts and requiring the drawing of subtle nuances and hairline distinctions, may be the sort of heady stuff upon which the facile minds of lawyers and judges eagerly feed, but they may be `literally impossible of application by the officer in the field.”

In short, “a single familiar standard is essential to guide police officers, who have only limited time and expertise to reflect on and balance the social and individual interests involved in the specific circumstances they confront.”

So it was that in United States v. Robinson the Court hewed to a straightforward rule, easily applied, and predictably enforced: “In the case of a lawful custodial arrest a full search of the person is not only an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, but is also a ‘reasonable’ search under that Amendment.”  In so holding, the Court rejected the suggestion that “there must be litigated in each case the issue of whether or not there was present one of the reasons supporting the authority for a search of the person incident to a lawful arrest.”

But no straightforward rule has emerged from the litigated cases respecting the question involved here—the question of the proper scope of a search of the interior of an automobile incident to a lawful custodial arrest of its occupants.  The difficulty courts have had is reflected in the conflicting views of the New York judges who dealt with the problem in the present case, and is confirmed by a look at even a small sample drawn from the narrow class of cases in which courts have decided whether, in the course of a search incident to the lawful custodial arrest of the occupants of an automobile, police may search inside the automobile after the arrestees are no longer in it.  On the one hand, decisions in cases such as United States v. Sanders have upheld such warrantless searches as incident to lawful arrests.  On the other hand, in cases such as United States v. Benson and United States v. Rigales, such searches, in comparable factual circumstances, have been held constitutionally invalid.

When a person cannot know how a court will apply a settled principle to a recurring factual situation, that person cannot know the scope of his constitutional protection, nor can a policeman know the scope of his authority.  While the Chimel case established that a search incident to an arrest may not stray beyond the area within the immediate control of the arrestee, courts have found no workable definition of “the area within the immediate control of the arrestee” when that area arguably includes the interior of an automobile and the arrestee is its recent occupant.  Our reading of the cases suggests the generalization that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within “the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary item.”  In order to establish the workable rule this category of cases requires, we read Chimel’s definition of the limits of the area that may be searched in light of that generalization.  Accordingly, we hold that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.

It follows from this conclusion that the police may also examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment, for if the passenger compartment is within reach of the arrestee, so also will containers in it be within his reach.  Such a container may, of course, be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container, but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have.  Thus, while the Court in Chimel held that the police could not search all the drawers in an arrestee’s house simply because the police had arrested him at home, the Court noted that drawers within an arrestee’s reach could be searched because of the danger their contents might pose to the police.

It is true, of course, that these containers will sometimes be such that they could hold neither a weapon nor evidence of the criminal conduct for which the suspect was arrested.  However, in United States v. Robinson, the Court rejected the argument that such a container—there a “crumpled up cigarette package”—located during a search of Robinson incident to his arrest could not be searched: “The authority to search the person incident to a lawful custodial arrest, while based upon the need to disarm and to discover evidence, does not depend on what a court may later decide was the probability in a particular arrest situation that weapons or evidence would in fact be found upon the person of the suspect. A custodial arrest of a suspect based on probable cause is a reasonable intrusion under the Fourth Amendment; that intrusion being lawful, a search incident to the arrest requires no additional justification.”

The New York Court of Appeals relied upon United States v. Chadwick and Arkansas v. Sanders in concluding that the search and seizure in the present case were constitutionally invalid.  But neither of those cases involved an arguably valid search incident to a lawful custodial arrest.  As the Court pointed out in the Chadwick case: “Here the search was conducted more than an hour after federal agents had gained exclusive control of the foot-locker and long after respondents were securely in custody; the search therefore cannot be viewed as incidental to the arrest or as justified by any other exigency.”  And in the Sanders case, the Court explicitly stated that it did not “consider the constitutionality of searches of luggage incident to the arrest of its possessor.  The State has not argued that respondent’s suitcase was searched incident to his arrest, and it appears that the bag was not within his `immediate control’ at the time of the search.”


It is not questioned that the respondent was the subject of a lawful custodial arrest on a charge of possessing marihuana.  The search of the respondent’s jacket followed immediately upon that arrest.  The jacket was located inside the passenger compartment of the car in which the respondent had been a passenger just before he was arrested.  The jacket was thus within the area which we have concluded was “within the arrestee’s immediate control” within the meaning of the Chimel case.  The search of the jacket, therefore, was a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest, and it did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Accordingly, the judgment is reversed.

It is so ordered.

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File Created:  08/10/2018
Last Modified: 08/10/2018



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