Article examines limitation on vehicle searches by police

October 15, 2012

By Clarrissa McWoodson ’14

Dr. Craig Curtis, associate professor of political science, has co-authored a journal article examining the impact of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on when police can search a vehicle after an arrest.

The article, published in the Aug. 20 edition of “The Journal of Crime and Justice,” reports the results of an examination of the lower court responses to the 2009 case of Arizona v. Gant. The article, entitled U.S Courts of Appeals and State Supreme Court Responses to Arizona v. Gant: A Study in Judicial Impact, was co-authored with Professor Michael Gizzi of Illinois State University and one of Professor Gizzi’s undergraduate students, Ethan Boldt.

Dr. Curtis said the Arizona v. Gant case is already one of the most cited search and seizure cases in history, despite being a recent case. He explained how the case constrains what police can do when they stop individuals in a vehicle and arrest them. Before the ruling on the Gant case, there was a rule known as the Belton Rule that allowed officers to search the entire vehicle after arresting an occupant.

“Before Gant, police did not need probable cause,” Dr. Curtis said. “Today, police can search a car, but they can only search the areas within the ‘reachable distance’ of the suspect, where a person might conceivably be able to grab a weapon, or if there is a reasonable probability that evidence of the crime for which the suspect was arrested may be found.”

On the substance of Gant’s ruling, Dr. Curtis said he believes it was correctly decided. Before the case, if police suspected someone was a drug dealer, officers would simply follow them until they committed a traffic violation and then pull them over.

“After a person was stopped, under the Belton Rule, police could search the vehicle whether or not they had probable cause,” Dr. Curtis said. “There were lots of false positive stops. This use of this tactic resulted in many incidents of racial profiling.”

For Dr. Curtis, the issue of search and seizure is one of his long-time research interests, starting with his master’s thesis written in 1985. This research interest has blossomed recently as part of a collaboration with Professor Gizzi. The authors used Shepard’s Citations, a legal index that helps researchers track judicial decisions, to gather the raw data for their analysis. Dr. Curtis and Professor Gizzi believe their method of using Shepard’s Citations allows for a new empirical method of measuring the relative importance of a case, or of a specific Supreme Court Justice, to an area of the law. Prior research on landmark cases has always been qualitative, based on the personal expertise of the author selecting the cases.

The two professors also have another article forthcoming in the “Criminal Law Bulletin” on the relative importance of the Gant decision in the jurisprudence of the Fourth Amendment.