Search and Seizure Case Update
The Washington Court of Appeals Division II, recently decided a case concerning a person’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Likewise, Washington’s own constitution has a similar protection that is even more protective of an individual’s right to privacy. The case that the Court of Appeals decided, State v. Ellison, clarifies the extent to which the U.S. Constitution’s as well as Washington’s Constitution protect against unreasonable searches.
The references the recent Supreme Court opinion in Arizona v. Gant, which was a landmark case in search and seizure law that limited an officer’s ability to search a vehicle incident to arrest. Prior to the Gant decision, officers were able to search the entire passenger area of a vehicle as a search incident to arrest, even in cases where someone was arrested for driving with a suspended license and there is no legitimate evidence of other crimes prior to the search. The practice would lead to the police over enforcing low-level traffic offenses, in an effort to attempt to uncover other crimes during the search.
In Ellison, the defendant was arrested with a backpack between his feet. The officers searched the backpack without a warrant and without the defendant’s consent. Officers uncovered evidence of several crimes. The defense argued that the opinion in Gant extends to situations where officers arrest someone not in their vehicle and the search of the backpack as incident to arrest was not allowed. The Court of Appeals found that even if the ruling in Gant applies to situations outside of a vehicle, officers may still search a bag that was in the immediate control of the person arrested and there is legitimate concern for officer safety.