Thornton v. United States 541 U.S. 615, 124 S. Ct. 2127, 158 L. Ed.2d 905 (2004)
A policeman ran a check on the
license plate of Thornton's car and found it had been issued to another
vehicle. He followed Thornton, and when he got out of his car, the
policeman asked him if he had any drugs on him. Thornton admitted that he
had some drugs on him.
The policeman arrested
Thornton and then searched Thornton's car. Inside the car he found a gun.
The Trial Court convicted
Thornton of possession of an illegal gun. He appealed.
Thornton didn't contest the
drug conviction, but argued that the policeman's warrantless search of
his vehicle was unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional under the 4th
Normally, when a person is
arrested, the police are allowed to search the person's and the area
within the person's immediate control. In this case, the officer
arrested Thornton outside of his vehicle, so the contents of the vehicle
were not within his immediate control.
The police argued that it
was a permissible search since it was a search incident to a lawful
The purposes of a SILA
search are to insure that the arrestee can't get to a weapon to attack
the police with, or get to evidence that they could destroy.
See United States v.
Robinson (414 U.S. 218 (1973)).
The Appellate Court upheld the
conviction. Thornton appealed.
The Appellate Court noted
that Thornton was in the immediate proximity of the car, and had exited
it only moments before. Therefore the search was reasonable.
The US Supreme Court upheld
The US Supreme Court found
that so long as the arrestee is the sort of 'recent occupant' of a
vehicle such as Thornton was, the police may search the vehicle as an
incident to the arrest.
Under SILA you can search
the area within reach of the arrestee, but that's amorphous, so the
courts have held that, in the context of a vehicle, the entire passenger
compartment is searchable. It makes for a clear line.
Compare to Chimel v.
California (395 U.S. 752 (1969)),
which held that SILA was not justifiable for an entire multi-level
home. It is more justifiable to search a car because they are much
smaller and the size doesn't vary much.
The Court found that it
would be too confusing if the police had to determine exactly where the
suspect was when they initiated contact.
The Court compared this
case to New York v. Belton (453
U.S. 454 (1981), in which the police stopped a car and ordered the
occupants out of the car. They then searched the car. The Court
basically said in both Belton and here that it is difficult to determine exactly when a
person is arrested, so there should not be a bright line rule about what
the police can do based on where the person is located when the arrest
In a concurring opinion it
was argued that it as completely unreasonable to justify the search based
on SILA. However, since Thornton was arrested for drug possession, there
was sufficient probable cause to
conduct a search of the vehicle for more drugs.