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Chimel v. California

Setting The Standard

Justice Stewart wrote the opinion for the majority in Chimel v. California. He stated that the decision in United States v. Rabinowitz "at least in the broad sense in which it was applied by the California courts in this case, can withstand neither historical nor rational analysis." Stewart explained that when an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the officer to search the person to remove weapons that might be used to resist arrest or to make an escape. If the officer did not search the person, the officer might be in danger. It is also reasonable for the officer to search for and seize evidence on the arrestee to prevent its concealment or destruction. The area in reach of the arrestee--within his immediate control--may also be searched to prevent the person from grabbing a weapon or evidence.

No justification exists for routinely searching any room, except for the one where the arrest occurs. Even there, no reason exists to search desk drawers or other closed or concealed places in the room. Such searches require a search warrant. That principle was used to decide Preston v. United States. In that case, a car towed after arrest was searched without a warrant. The Court held the search to be unlawful under the Fourth Amendment although it was contended that the search was incidental to a valid arrest. Because the search was remote in time and place from the arrest, it was not valid.

The defense contended that the search of Chimel's house was reasonable because he had been arrested in the house. Stewart felt that that "argument is founded on little more than a subjective view regarding the acceptability of certain sorts of police conduct and not on considerations relevant to Fourth Amendment interests. Under such an unconfined analysis, Fourth Amendment protection in this area would approach the evaporation point." Stewart pointed out that it would be hard to explain why it is less reasonable to search a person's house when he is arrested on the front lawn or just down the street. The necessary distinction must be made between a search of the arrestee and the area in his reach versus more extensive searches.

Stewart summed up his opinion by noting that the search of Chimel's house went far beyond a search of the arrestee and the area from which he could have gotten a weapon or evidence. "There was no constitutional justification, in the absence of a search warrant, for extending the search beyond that area. The scope of the search was, therefore, `unreasonable' under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and the petitioner's conviction cannot stand."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Chimel v. California - Significance, Setting The Standard, Warrantless Emergency Search, Impact, Further Readings