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Name: Thornton v. United States
Case #: Mar-65
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 05/24/2004

Before the arresting officer could pull over petitioner’s car, petitioner parked and got out of the car. The officer found drugs in petitioner’s pocket and arrested him. Incident to the arrest, he searched petitioner’s car and found a handgun under the seat. The District court found the search valid under New York v. Belton. Petitioner appealed, arguing that Belton was limited to situations where the officer initiated contact with an arrestee while he was still in the car. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, and in this opinion, The United States Supreme Court affirmed that opinion. Belton governs even when an officer does not make contact until the person arrested has left the vehicle. Belton did not rely on whether the police ordered the occupants out of the vehicle or initiated contact with them while they were in it. The area within the arrestee’s immediate control is not determined by whether he exited the vehicle. The arrest of someone next to a vehicle still implicates safety concerns for the officer and the potential for destruction of evidence left in the vehicle. Belton allows the search of a vehicle’s passenger compartment incident to a lawful arrest of both occupants and recent occupants. The arrestee’s status doesn’t turn on whether he was inside or outside the car when the officer initiated contact. J. Stevens and Souter dissented, noting the “massive broadening of the automobile exception.”