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decided: July 1, 1981.



Stewart, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Rehnquist, J., filed a concurring statement, post, p. 463. Stevens, J., filed a statement concurring in the judgment, post, p. 463. Brennan, J., post, p. 463, and White, J., post, p. 472, filed dissenting opinions, in which Marshall, J., joined.

Author: Stewart

[ 453 U.S. Page 455]

 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

[ 453 U.S. Page 456]

     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, 384 U.S. 436, 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. See Lefkowitz v. Newsome, 420 U.S. 283. 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." 68 App. Div. 2d 198, 201, 416 N. Y. S. 2d 922, 925.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that "[a] warrantless search of the zippered pockets of an unaccessible 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." 50 N. Y. 2d 447, 449, 407 N. E. 2d 420, 421. Two judges dissented.

[ 453 U.S. Page 457]

     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. . . ." Id., at 454, 407 N. E. 2d, at 424. We granted certiorari to consider the constitutionally permissible scope of a search in circumstances such as these. 449 U.S. 1109.


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." McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 456. Specifically, the Court held in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 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. Id., at 763.

The Court's opinion in Chimel emphasized the principle that, as the Court had said in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19, "[the] scope of [a] search must be 'strictly tied to and justified by' the circumstances which rendered its initiation permissible." Quoted in Chimel v. California, supra, at 762. Thus while the Court in Chimel found "ample justification" for a search of "the area from within which [an arrestee]

[ 453 U.S. Page 458]

     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." 395 U.S., at 763.

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." LaFave, "Case-By-Case Adjudication" versus "Standardized Procedures": The Robinson Dilemma, 1974 S. Ct. Rev. 127, 142. 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.'" Id., at 141.

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." Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 213-214.

[ 453 U.S. Page 459]

     So it was that, in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 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." Id., at 235. 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." Ibid.

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, 631 F.2d 1309 (CA8 1980); United States v. Dixon, 558 F.2d 919 (CA9 1977); and United States v. Frick, 490 F.2d 666 (CA5 1973), have upheld such warrantless searches as incident to lawful arrests. On the other hand, in cases such as United States v. Benson, 631 F.2d 1336 (CA8 1980), and United States v. Rigales, 630 F.2d 364 (CA5 1980), such searches, in comparable factual circumstances, have been held constitutionally invalid.*fn1

When a person cannot know how a court will apply a

[ 453 U.S. Page 460]

     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]." Chimel, 395 U.S., at 763. 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 ...

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