New York v. Belton
Decided on July 1, 1981; 453 US 454


A. Issues Discussed: Search and seizure, Due process

B. Legal Question Presented:

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.


A. Background:

"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...

The New York Court of Appeals reversed..."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging affirmance by Richard Emery, Charles S. Sims, and Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.

Paul J. Cambria, Jr., argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Brief of amici curiae urging reversal by Deputy Solicitor General Frey. With him on the brief were Solicitor General McCree, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Elliott Schulder.

James R. Harvey argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was R. Michael Tantillo.


"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... 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 ite[m]'... 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 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'... 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."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • Stewart, P. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the New York Court of Appeals' judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.