8th Circuit Case Clarifies Scope in Vehicle Searches Incident to Arrest

by | March 27, 2017

United States v. Stegall, (8th Cir. 2017)

During a road rage incident, Stegall brandished a gun at the other driver. The driver called 911 and dispatch broadcast a description of Stegall’s sport utility vehicle (SUV) pulling a trailer with a jet ski. In short order, two officers spotted the SUV. They temporarily lost sight of it, but soon found it parked and unoccupied in a shopping center parking lot.

A witness told the officers she saw someone get out of the SUV, go to the back of the SUV and “put something up underneath something.” The witness told the officers the driver had gone to a nearby deli; proceeding with the officers to the deli, she identified Stegall as the driver.

Stegall told the officers that he was the driver of the SUV and that he’d been involved in a road rage incident earlier that day, but denied brandishing a gun during the encounter. He told the officers he “probably” had a gun in his vehicle, but he did not consent to a search of his SUV. The officers called the other driver to the shopping center. The driver identified Stegall as the person who brandished a gun at him. The officers arrested Stegall for terroristic threatening. They handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol vehicle.

Intending to tow the SUV, the officers began an inventory. They found a handgun lodged between the back row of seats and the rear cargo floorboard. The handgun matched the description provided by the other driver. The officers also found an AR–15 rifle with an unusually short barrel. Concerned that the possession of a short-barreled rifle could be an independent crime, the officers stopped the inventory and sought a search warrant.

Stegall was charged with one count of possessing an unregistered short-barreled rifle. He asked the court to suppress the rifle as the product of a pretextual inventory. The trial court denied his request, finding that the search was reasonable as a search incident to a lawful arrest.

In Arizona v. Gant (556 U.S. 332 (2009)), the U.S. Supreme Court redefined and narrowed the traditional “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that officers may search a vehicle incident to an arrest only if the arrestee is unrestrained and “within reaching distance of the passenger compartment” at the time of the search or “it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence” of the crime for which the person is being arrested.

Because Stegall was handcuffed and secured in a patrol car at the time of the search, the officers needed a basis to believe the vehicle contained evidence linking Stegall to the road rage incident—otherwise the search would not trigger the search incident to arrest exception. The witness told officers that she saw Stegall put something in the rear hatch of the SUV. Stegall admitted that he was the driver involved in the road rage incident and said that he probably had a gun in the SUV. Plus, the other driver identified Stegall as the one who brandished a gun. Therefore, the court held that there was reason to believe that the SUV contained evidence of the crime of terroristic threatening.

Stegall also argued that the search was illegal because it exceeded the proper scope of a vehicle search incident to arrest. Stegall defined the rear of the SUV as the trunk area, not part of the passenger compartment. The court disagreed, holding that a hatchback area is part of the passenger compartment as long as one of the vehicle occupants could have reached into the hatchback area while inside the vehicle. Numerous other courts have reached the same conclusion; see United States v. Sain (421 Fed.Appx. 591 (6th Cir. 2011)), United States v. Allen (469 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2006)), United States v. Mayo (394 F.3d 1271 (9th Cir. 2005)), and United States v. Olguin–Rivera (168 F.3d 1203 (10th Cir. 1999)). It did not matter to the court that Stegall used the exterior access to put the gun in the hatchback. Nor did it matter that the officers opened the hatch at the rear during their search.

Related: Search of Backpack Incident to Arrest Can’t Be Justified When Subject Is Handcuffed and Distant, DUI Arrest Justifies Warrantless Search of Car

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more