In United States v. Knapp, the Tenth Circuit reversed the denial of a motion to suppress and held a warrantless search of an arrestee’s purse could not be sustained as a search incident to arrest.
Defendant Stacy Knapp was arrested on an outstanding warrant. Police officers seized the purse she was carrying and handcuffed her behind her back. The police walked Ms. Knapp to the police car while they carried her purse. An officer then put Ms. Knapp’s purse on the hood of the car, about three to four feet away from Ms. Knapp (who was still handcuffed). One officer stood next to Ms. Knapp and two other officers were nearby. After Ms. Knapp admitted there was a gun inside her purse, an officer searched the purse and recovered a pistol.
The Government argued the warrantless search was permissible as a search incident to Ms. Knapp’s arrest. The Tenth Circuit disagreed and held that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.
First, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse amounted to a “search of the person,” which is allowed automatically under United States v. Robinson. The Court held that Robinson should be limited to searches of an arrestee’s clothing — explicitly rejecting authority from other courts that had extended Robinson to apply to searches of handheld containers. The Court explained that searches incident to arrest are justified by the possibility that an arrestee might have a weapon and by the officers’ need to disarm her. In this light, automatic searches of an arrestee’s clothing make sense because separating an arrestee from her clothing to deny her access to any weapon “would be impractical (not to mention demeaning).” But that rationale doesn’t apply to handheld containers like purses, the Court held, because such items are “easily capable of separation from [the] person.”
Second, the Court rejected the district court’s holding that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse was justified on the ground that she could have accessed it at the time of the search. The Court recognized that, under Chimel v. California, police can search not only an arrestee’s person but also anything else they reasonably believe the arrestee might access to get a weapon or destroy evidence. However, the Court held that, unlike Robinson searches, Chimel searches are not automatic and “must be justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.” Further, the Court held that Arizona v. Gant, which arose in the context of an automobile search, was not limited to that context and required the Court to evaluate “the arrestee’s ability to access weapons or destroy evidence at the time of the search, rather than the time of the arrest, regardless of whether the search involved a vehicle.” Applying Gant and Chimel, the Court held that “it was unreasonable to believe Ms. Knapp could have gained possession of a weapon or destructible evidence within her purse at the time of the search.” Ms. Knapp could not have accessed the contents of her purse, the Court explained, because “not only were Ms. Knapp’s hands cuffed behind her back, [an officer] was next to her, and two other officers were nearby. Moreover, the purse was closed and three to four feet behind her, and officers had maintained exclusive possession of it since placing her in handcuffs.”
- Preservation matters. This awesome appellate win was born in the district court. The trial lawyers made a great record, filing a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds (and later, a reply in support of the motion) and emphasizing the government’s burden to prove that the search and seizure was reasonable. Because the issue was raised and ruled upon below, the Tenth Circuit applied de novo review on appeal. This favorable standard of review is the result of preservation; and it was the first step on the path to victory.
- A purse is not a pocket! Searches “of the person” incident to an arrest are allowed automatically, but such searches are limited to searches of the arrestee’s clothing and cannot extend to a search of a handheld container, like a purse.
- A search of the “grab area” must be justified. A search of the area within the arrestee’s immediate control (the “grab area”) is not a search “of the person” and must be “justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.”
- Justification depends on what’s happening at the time of the search, not the time of the arrest. If, at the time of the search, it isn’t reasonable to believe that an arrestee could access a place or item to destroy evidence or get a weapon, the search of that place or item cannot be justified as a search incident to arrest.