In United States v. Knapp, officers searched the defendant’s purse despite the fact that she was handcuffed behind her back, her purse was closed and three to four feet behind her, and three officers who were present had exclusive possession of the purse since cuffing the defendant.

The Fourth Amendment provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” In general, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). The warrantless search rule, however, is subject to several exceptions. One exception allows arresting officers to “search the person of the accused when legally arrested.” Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392 (1914).

Case law has developed to allow not only the search of the arrestee’s person, but also the area within the arrestee’s “immediate control.” Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969). This authority is justified by the need to disarm the suspect and preserve evidence. United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 234 (1973).

“Of the Person”
The Supreme Court has not clearly demarcated where the person ends and the “grab area” begins. The 10th Circuit resolves this question, and it holds that the better view is that a carried purse does not qualify as “of the person.” First, because of an arrestee’s ability to always access weapons concealed in her clothing or pockets, an officer must necessarily search those areas because it would be impractical (not to mention demeaning) to separate the arrestee from her clothing. Second, given that handheld containers such as purses are easily dispossessed, classifying such containers as potentially part of an arrestee’s person would necessitate unworkable determinations about what the arrestee was holding at the exact time of her arrest. Third, a holding to the contrary would erode the distinction between the arrestee’s person and the area within her immediate control.

“Immediate Control”
This question depends on whether the purse was within the area the arresting officers could “reasonably have believed . . . [the arrestee] could have accessed . . . at the time of the search.” Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 344 (2009) (emphasis added).

The 10th Circuit looked to the following factors to determine whether an area searched is within an arrestee’s grab area under Chimel: (1) whether the arrestee is handcuffed; (2) the relative number of arrestees and officers present; (3) the relative positions of the arrestees, officers, and the place to be searched; and (4) the ease or difficulty with which the arrestee could gain access to the searched area. United States v. Parra, 2 F.3d 1058,
1066 (10th Cir. 1993)

Full Opinion:

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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