In a landmark decision handed down on April 21, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Arizona v. Gant, held that the police may only search the passenger area of a motor vehicle after an individuals arrest, only if there is reason to believe the individual may be able to access the motor vehicle or the police have reason to believe the passenger area contains contraband.
Under a previous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York v. Belton (1981), a search of the entire passenger area of a motor vehicle subsequent to a lawful arrest had been readily practiced by the police and accepted by the courts. This could occur even if the arrestee was handcuffed and in the back of a police squad car, obviously presenting no threat to the officer.
However, The U.S. Supreme Court now seems to have possibly turned this practice on its head. In Gant, the Court threw out a drug conviction when the police had arrested the driver for having a suspended license. After the driver was removed from the motor vehicle, handcuffed and locked in the back of a squad car, the police searched the passenger area of the car and found cocaine lying on a jacket in the back seat.
On a personal note, having litigated numerous search and seizures cases as a Minnesota Criminal Lawyer and Minnesota DWI Lawyer over the last 15 years, I am extremely pleased with this decision!