Thornton v. United States

PETITIONER:Marcus Thornton
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:University Court Housing Project

DOCKET NO.: 03-5165
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 615 (2004)
GRANTED: Nov 03, 2003
ARGUED: Mar 31, 2004
DECIDED: May 24, 2004

Frank W. Dunham, Jr. – argued the cause for Petitioner
Gregory G. Garre – argued the cause for Respondent
Shashank S. Upadhye – pro se, filed a brief as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

Marcus Thornton was stopped after getting out of his vehicle by a police officer who had noticed that the license plate on Thornton’s Lincoln Town Car belonged to a Chevy two-door car. During his conversation with Thornton, the officer asked if he could search him. During the search he found two bags of drugs. The officer arrested Thornton, then searched his vehicle (which Thornton had already exited by the time the police officer spoke with him, though the officer had seen him exit it). In the vehicle the officer found a gun.

Thornton was convicted of drug and firearms offenses. On appeal, he moved to have the gun dismissed as evidence because, he claimed, it had been found as the result of an unconstitutional search. He argued that the officer had contacted him after he had left the vehicle and that the search therefore did not fall within the “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement (the exception allows police to search the person being arrested and the area “within his immediate control”).

A Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected his argument, holding that requiring officers to signal their intent to arrest a person before he exited his vehicle would be dangerous because it would give him a chance to get any weapons in the vehicle or to use the vehicle to get away or run over the officers.


Under the “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment, may police search the vehicle of a person they have arrested if they did not make contact with him until after he left the vehicle?

Media for Thornton v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 31, 2004 in Thornton v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 24, 2004 in Thornton v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinion of the Court to announce in No. 03-5165, Thornton against United States.

Here a Norfolk Virginia a police officer attempted to pull over petitioner, a guy name Marcus Thornton.

Before the officer could stop petitioner however, he parked and exited his vehicle.

The officer pulled in behind petitioner and accosted him.

After discovering that he had narcotics on him, the officer arrested him and searched the passenger compartment of his car.

Under the driver’s seat, the officer has found a handgun.

Petitioner was charged with federal drug and firearms violation.

The District Court denied his motion to suppress the firearm as a fruit of an illegal search relying among other cases on our opinion in New York against Belton.

In Belton, we held that when a police officer makes a lawful custodial arrest of an automobile’s occupant, the Fourth Amendment allows the officer to search the vehicle’s passenger compartment as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest.

The petitioner appealed his conviction arguing that Bellton was limited to situations where the officer initiated contact with an arrestee while the arrestee, in this case petitioner, was still in the car.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We granted certiorari and we now affirm.

In Belton, we sought to set forth a bright-line rule that would protect officer’s safety and preserve evidence for trial.

We place no reliance on whether the officer initiated the contact with the occupant of the vehicle.

In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer’s safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is still inside the vehicle.

It would make little sense to apply two different rules to what is at bottom the same situation.

We disagree with the petitioner that applying Belton’s rule to arrestees who are not confronted while they were inside the vehicle would diminish its clarity.

Belton explicitly applied to recent occupants of a car as well as occupant. A rule requiring officers to signal confrontation with occupants of vehicles would be inherently subjective, highly facts-specific, and would require precisely the sort of ad hoc determinations of the officers in the field and of reviewing courts that Belton sought to avoid.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals was affirmed.

Justice O’Connor has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Scalia has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Ginsburg has joined; Justice Stevens has filed a disssenting opinion in which Justice Souter has joined.