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Cops: Supreme Court ruling on vehicle searches has little impact here

Tucson-area law officers say a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limiting warrantless vehicle searches will have little or no impact on how they operate.

“It won’t have any effect,” said Capt. Oscar Miranda, commander of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s uniform patrol division.

“For us it’s going to loosen our parameters over what” the Arizona Supreme Court had ruled earlier in the case, said Officer Charles Rydzak, a Tucson Police Department spokesman.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police need a warrant to search the vehicle of a person they have arrested if the person is locked up in a police car and poses no threat to officers and cannot destroy evidence in the vehicle.

The decision backs an Arizona Supreme Court ruling in favor of Rodney Joseph Gant, who was handcuffed on Aug. 25, 1999, put in the back seat of a patrol car and was under police supervision when Tucson officers searched his car without a warrant.

The officers found a gun, cocaine and drug paraphernalia in the car and arrested Gant on charges of possession of a narcotic drug for sale and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to a copy of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. His conviction was overturned by the Arizona Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.

Police and sheriff’s deputies have been adhering to rules similar to the U.S. high court’s ruling since about two years ago, when the Arizona Supreme Court justices issued their similar ruling, Rydzak and Miranda said.

In past years in Arizona, and currently in some other states, officers were allowed to do what is called a search incident to arrest.

In such a search, even when a suspect is taken from his vehicle, cuffed and locked in a police car under arrest, officers could search the area that had been in his immediate control.

Such searches were for evidence that could be destroyed or weapons that could pose a safety threat to officers if the suspect were to have access to his car, Miranda and Rydzak said.

But Rydzak said the state’s high court severely limited such searches.

The U.S. Supreme Court, while siding with Arizona’s high court, still allowed for warrantless vehicle searches in some circumstances.

Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion that warrantless searches may be conducted if a car’s passenger compartment is within reach of a suspect who has been recently removed from the vehicle, or there is reason to believe evidence of a crime will be found.

The U.S. Supreme Court opinion also takes into consideration that an arrested suspect may regain access to his vehicle.

Rydzak said that under Arizona court guidelines, a search incident to arrest required that evidence had to be in plain view.

The Bush administration had complained of officer safety issues in the wake of the state Supreme Court ruling, but Rydzak said if the suspect has been removed from the vehicle and placed in a patrol car, “what’s the safety issue?”

Once the suspect is handcuffed and in custody, Miranda said, “the suspect poses no threat to officers’ safety.”

And if there is a good reason to think there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle, an officer can get a search warrant, Miranda said.

“We have the time to deal with it. There is no urgency,” Miranda said.

Justice Samuel Alito, in dissent, wrote, “There are cases in which it is unclear whether an arrestee could retrieve a weapon or evidence.”

The earlier Arizona high court opinions applied only to Arizona. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruling applies to all states, said Deputy Pima County Attorney Jacob Lines.

“That’s the big effect, the national effect,” Lines said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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