I knew in law school that I was going to be a criminal defense lawyer. My criminal law class was a painful study in how our constitutional rights were sacrificed to help save dope cases. Decades of weakening the 4th and 5th amendment (to the point of absurdity) all in the name of WOD. I wish I had my notes for that class, I remember writing "court oks search because cops find drugs, create new exception" etc.
One such tragedy was the line of "automobile" exceptions. Basically, driving a car meant you gave up your privacy rights so cops could search for drugs.
That is why today's case, Arizona v. Gant is significant. SCOTUS overturns (or "declines to interpret broadly") bad precedent and actually limits police searches.
It's a strange coalition, this majority. You have the originalist/strict constructionists Thomas and Scalia joining the liberal Souter and Stephens, with Ginsburg rounding out the 5.
Facts(from the opinion)
After Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a patrol car, police officers searched his car and discovered cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat.
Across our country minor traffic arrests have become fishing expeditions for dope. Gant was arrested for driving for driving without a license. The cops had no evidence of drug possession, but they dutifully searched the vehicle and found cocaine (yawn).
Police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle inci-dent to a recent occupant’s arrest only if it is reasonable to believe that the arrestee might access the vehicle at the time of the search or that the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.
To see how far we have come, let's look at where we started.
Every case that creates a new police search power starts off with this quote-
Warrantless searches “are per se unreasonable,” “subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v.United States, 389 U. S. 347, 357.
These exceptions have largely swallowed the rule. First (Chimel) SCOTUS allowed cops to search the area immediately around the defendant where he could reach or "lunge" for a weapon (officer safety etc). This was expanded (Belton) to include searching the rest of the car because bad guys could hide guns and dope in a car (preserving evidence). So arresting drivers for minor violations and then tearing cars apart became standard practice for law enforcement. Add the Lago Vista disaster (giving the police authority to arrest for trivial minor traffic offenses) and we had a situation where suspects could be pulled over for a minor traffic violation, refuse a consent search request, and the police could just arrest them for the traffic offense and search anyway. These pretext arrests were an end run around the 4th amendment.
SCOTUS righftully shut down this search because
a) searching for weapons couldn't be justified under "officer safety" if the defendant is handcuffed in the back of the patrol car
b) searching for dope wasn't justified for a traffic violation.
So remember kids, never consent to a search, never answer questions about illegal activities, and always ask for a lawyer.
Before we get too exited, there is still the "inventory" search for automobiles that may save similar searches in the future. That is, the cops tow your car and then "inventory" the contents.