New York v. Belton

RESPONDENT: Roger Belton
LOCATION: New York State Thruway

DOCKET NO.: 80-328
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: New York Court of Appeals

CITATION: 453 US 454 (1981)
ARGUED: Apr 27, 1981
DECIDED: Jul 01, 1981
GRANTED: Jan 19, 1981

Mr. Andrew L. Frey - on behalf of the United States as amicus curiae
James R. Harvey - on behalf of the Petitioner
Paul J. Cambria, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

A New York State police officer stopped a car speeding on the New York State Thruway. Roger Belton was a passenger in that car. When the officer spoke with the driver he smelled marijuana and saw an envelope he believed contained marijuana. The officer also found that none of the car’s occupants owned the car or were related to the owner of the car. After asking the four occupants of the car to get out, the officer searched the car and found a leather jacket belonging to Belton with cocaine zipped inside one of the pockets.

At trial for criminal possession of a controlled substance, Belton argued that the officer seized the cocaine in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The trial court denied his motion to suppress that evidence. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court held that the search was constitutional, reasoning that after the officer validly arrested Belton, he could reasonably search the immediate area for more contraband. The Court of Appeals of New York reversed, holding that because Belton had no way of gaining access to the cocaine at the time the officer searched the car, the officer needed a warrant for the search he conducted.


May an officer lawfully search a car without a warrant after the occupants are separated from the vehicle and under arrest?

Media for New York v. Belton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 27, 1981 in New York v. Belton

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in New York v. Belton.

Mr. Harvey, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

James R. Harvey:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case involves the legality of a search conducted by a police officer of a jacket belonging to the respondent and the admissibility of the evidence... in this case, cocaine... which was obtained from that jacket.

The basic issue boils down essentially to whether or not the search was permissible as a search incident to a lawful arrest which was one of the several well-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

By way, just very briefly, of background of the case and how it got here.

The respondent moved to suppress the cocaine at the trial level; that motion was denied after a hearing.

The evidence was held admissible; the respondent subsequently pled guilty and appealed the case to the New York State intermediate appellate court, which unanimously held that the search was proper of the jacket in this case, as a search incident to a lawful arrest.

The respondent further appealed to the New York Court of Appeals which in a divided opinion reversed the appellate court, lower appellate court, and held that the officer had in effect reduced the jacket to his exclusive control when he, if you will, picked it up, and therefore a warrant was at that time necessary under the law.

The facts in this case, if I could very briefly run through them... I think they're very important, and they're pretty much... well, they're not in dispute by either counsel for the respondent or myself, but I'd like to go through, and start out by saying that it was on April ninth 1978, that the Trooper Nicot in this case, a state policeman, was patrolling the New York State Thruway, an interstate highway, and he spotted the respondent's vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed on the highway.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

What time of day was this?

James R. Harvey:

Mid-morning, Your Honor.

And he pulled over the vehicle.

There were four male occupants, two in the back and two in the front.

When he went up to the window... it was rolled down by the driver; he went to the driver's side... he smelled fresh burning marijuana and observed on the floor a Supergold stamped container which he knew from his training to be a container that normally contains marijuana.

At that point in time he directed all four occupants to leave the vehicle, which was a two-door vehicle.

They got out of the vehicle.

He at that point in time retrieved the Supergold container, which did contain marijuana, in fact, and some four or five "roaches" or burned marijuana cigarettes in the ashtray of the front portion of the vehicle.

At that point in time he again patted down or searched further all of the four occupants of the vehicle, read them their Miranda rights, placed them under arrest for possession of marijuana.

At this time we had four defendants outside of the motor vehicle there on the expressway.

The officer then went back into the vehicle and on the back seat there were lying five jackets.

He picked up the jacket involved in this particular case and he took ahold of it, went through it, and found cocaine in an unzipped pocket as well as a $20 bill and cocaine in a zippered pocket.

Not that that makes any difference.

And he then asked each of the four defendants, at this point, occupants of that vehicle, as to who owned this particular jacket.

William H. Rehnquist:

You say there were five jackets?

James R. Harvey:

I believe that's correct, Your Honor.

There were only four people in the car, Your Honor, but there... pardon?

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Five jackets?

James R. Harvey:

That's correct, Your Honor.

I believe that's what the... as I recall the record.