Search of Backpack Incident to Arrest Can’t Be Justified When Suspect Is Handcuffed and Distant

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State v. Snyder, (Ariz. App. 2016)

A grocery store security officer saw Snyder shoplift two steaks and place them in his backpack. The security officer and another person detained Snyder outside the store. During the confrontation, Snyder sustained a broken kneecap. The security officer handcuffed Snyder and called the police.

An officer advised Snyder of his Miranda rights and questioned him. Snyder was still wearing handcuffs. Snyder said that he intended to purchase the steaks and was headed to his car to retrieve a payment card when he was stopped. When a second officer arrived, he searched Snyder’s backpack, which was around the corner in the oddly shaped security office. In addition to the steaks, the officer found two guns, ammunition and a bag with suspected methamphetamine.

Snyder asked that the evidence be suppressed, arguing that the search of his backpack “cannot be justified as a search incident to arrest because the reasons justifying a search incident to arrest were not present” and the “backpack was not in [an] area under his immediate control.”

The search incident to arrest doctrine generally allows an officer to search a person incident to a lawful arrest, though the scope of the search is limited to the arrestee’s person and area within his immediate control. The traditional doctrine was limited by the United States Supreme Court in Arizona v. Gant (556 U.S. 332 (2009)). In Gant, the Court observed that the basis for the search incident to arrest exception “derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations.” The Gant Court held that a search incident to arrest is limited to the areas in the arrestee’s ”immediate control” at the time of arrest.

Snyder’s backpack was on the opposite side of the room. Snyder asserted that he could not reach for a weapon or to destroy evidence because the backpack was out of his reach. Moreover, he was handcuffed and had a broken knee. The court found that his backpack was not “within his immediate control at the time of the arrest.”

Even though the search incident to arrest exception could not apply, the evidence might be admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. The prosecution argued that the drugs and guns would have been inevitably discovered during an inventory or booking search. However, the court found that this exception could not apply because Snyder had only been detained on a misdemeanor shoplifting charge. It was far from inevitable that he would be transported and booked. In fact, Snyder was not transported in a police vehicle, but was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

Snyder was never charged with the underlying shoplifting offense; he was charged sometime later with the felony crime. Thus, the evidence from the search of the backpack was inadmissible. This decision reminds officers that the Supreme Court tightened the search incident to arrest doctrine in Gant. Only the arrestee’s person and the area immediately within the arrestee’s control—at the time of the actual arrest—may be searched incident to the arrest. Other doctrines, such as an inventory search, may apply if the arrestee is actually transported and booked into jail.

Ken Wallentine

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.

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