A time-honored, long-standing exception to the warrant requirement is a search incident to a lawful arrest. If the police have probable cause to arrest a suspect, as part of the arrest process, they are entitled to search the person of the arrestee. The justification is that such a search is a reasonable intrusion on the arrestee’s liberty, justified by:
- The safety of the officer, to find a weapon that could harm the arresters
- The needs of society, to prevent escape and prevent the destruction of evidence.
If evidence is uncovered as the result of any unlawful, unconstitutional search, a skilled defense attorney may be able to keep that evidence out of court and trial, and secure an acquittal for his or her client.
The search of the person incident to their arrest is limited to what is known as the “grab area”, i.e. within the wingspan or reach of the person. If it is an item within this zone, it potentially poses a threat. Chimel v. California.
The search incident to arrest would include the authority to look at any closed containers found on the person of the arrestee, US v. Robinson.
The Constitution places additional limitations on the ability of officers to search the luggage or vehicles incident to arrest.
The authority to search under this exception would not extend to external closed sealed containers near the arrestee, at least those searched after the arrest. “ [W]arrantless searches of luggage or other property seized at the time of an arrest cannot be justified as incident to that arrest either if the "search is remote in time or place from the arrest or no exigency exists.” US v. Chadwick.