Search Incident to Arrest of Vehicle Occupants

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

One of the situations where police officers are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant is during an arrest. This is known as a “Search Incident to Arrest.” Let’s understand what this means and when it is applied.

What is a Search Incident to Arrest?

When police officers arrest a person, they are allowed to search that person and the area within the person’s immediate control. This is to ensure officer safety and prevent the destruction of evidence (Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 1969). When the arrest happens in a vehicle, this can include parts of the vehicle within the arrested person’s reach.

The Scope of the Search

In a landmark case, Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the rules for vehicle searches incident to arrest. The court ruled that officers can only search the vehicle if the arrested person is within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the search or if officers believe the vehicle contains evidence related to the arrest.

This means that if an arrested person is handcuffed and put in a police car, officers cannot go back and search the vehicle unless they believe it contains evidence of the crime for which the person was arrested.

Practical Implications

The rules for a search incident to arrest are important to understand. They help protect the rights of individuals during an arrest while also ensuring officer safety and the preservation of evidence.


A search incident to arrest of vehicle occupants allows police officers to search a vehicle without a warrant when an arrest is made. Officers can search the person and areas within their immediate control, including parts of a vehicle. However, the search is limited to ensure the rights of individuals.

Officers can only search the vehicle if the arrested person could reach into the vehicle or if they believe the vehicle contains evidence of the crime. Understanding these rules is crucial to balance the demands of law enforcement with individual rights.

Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2023

[ Back | Content | Next]

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

Print for Personal Use

You are welcome to print a copy of pages from this Open Educational Resource (OER) book for your personal use. Please note that mass distribution, commercial use, or the creation of altered versions of the content for distribution are strictly prohibited. This permission is intended to support your individual learning needs while maintaining the integrity of the material.

Print This Text Section Print This Text Section

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.