525 U.S. 113 (1998)

One-Sentence Takeaway:  Unlike a search incident to an arrest, an officer cannot search an automobile incident to a citation unless he has probable cause to do so.

Facts: Officer stopped Defendant for speeding.  Under Iowa law, the officer could have arrested Defendant, but he issued a citation instead.  Then, the officer conducted a full search of Defendant’s vehicle and found marijuana under the driver’s seat.

Issue: The issue presented to the Court was whether the officer could conduct a search of the vehicle incident to citation.

Holding:  The Court held that the officer could not search the vehicle incident to citation unless he had probable cause to do so.

The Court explained that the facts before it were different from cases where searches were permitted incident to arrest.  “In [United States v. Robinson], we noted the two historical rationales for the ‘search incident to arrest’ exception: (1) the need to disarm the suspect in order to take him into custody, and (2) the need to preserve evidence for later use at trial.”

The Court concluded that neither of those rationales for search incident to arrest exception justified the search incident to citation.

The first rationale of officer safety did not justify search incident to citation because “[t]he threat to officer safety from issuing a traffic citation . . is a good deal less than in the case of a custodial arrest.  A routine traffic stop . . . is relatively brief encounter and is more analogous to a so-called Terry stop.”

Neither did the second rationale of the need to preserve evidence justified searches incident to citation.  “Once [Defendant] was stopped for speeding and issued a citation, all the evidence necessary to prosecute that offense had been obtained.  No further evidence of excessive speed was going to be found either on the person of the offender or in the passenger compartment of the car.”

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