LEWISTON – Law enforcement officers policing Maine’s roads will be doing their jobs differently since a ruling this week by the U.S. Supreme Court that limited vehicle searches, police said.

Defense attorneys applauded the court for upholding constitutional guarantees as promised in the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

The nation’s top court ruled that officers who stop a car or truck and arrest the occupant can search the vehicle only if weapons are potentially in reach of the suspect or if there is reason to believe that the car contains evidence related to the arrest.

Maine State Police Lt. Walter Grzyb said Friday his troopers got word of the court’s decision almost immediately after it went public.

“This will absolutely have a significant impact” on the way troopers go about their daily traffic stops, he said.

Law enforcement officers commonly have searched the vehicles of those they arrested, Grzyb said. Their reasons were twofold: officer safety and possible loss of evidence.

Officers will still be allowed to search a vehicle with consent of the owner and to seize evidence if it is in plain view.

They also will be able to conduct a search without a warrant if they have established probable cause to do so, Grzyb said.

Although the court’s ruling might result in lost evidence in some cases, Grzyb said he hopes it doesn’t mean officers will be less safe while doing their jobs.

“It will force them to rethink how they approach certain situations,” he said.

All law enforcement officers in Maine learned at Maine Criminal Justice Academy about the 1981 decision N.Y. v. Belton, which allowed the officers to search vehicles “incident to arrest.”

Tuesday’s decision changes that, said Lewiston’s Acting Police Chief, Michael Bussiere.

“This is an important case,” he said. Already, officers were undergoing training based on the new case, Arizona v. Gant, Bussiere said.

In that case, Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. Police searched his car – even though Gant was handcuffed and out of reach of his car – and found cocaine.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision for Gant.

Defense attorneys were pleased by the ruling.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” Auburn lawyer Leonard Sharon said Friday.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, has been “whittled down” through the years, Sharon said. Tuesday’s ruling gives much of that constitutional protection back to the people.

George Hess, a longtime defense attorney in the Twin Cities, said he is a “strong believer” in that constitutional amendment.

“I think the line the courts are trying to put on paper is correct,” he said Friday.

If there is no safety issue and the search doesn’t have to do with the reason for the traffic stop, then there’s “no legitimate basis to intrude in the privacy” of the vehicle’s occupant, Hess said.

He said the ruling will have an effect on some of his past cases and current cases.

He doesn’t see a down side.

“I don’t think it’s going to interfere with good police practices,” he said.

Prosecutor Joseph O’Connor said Friday he doesn’t see many cases as an assistant district attorney in Oxford County courts that resulted from the type of search conducted in Arizona.

“I don’t see a lot of that going on,” he said.



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