Can police search a motorcycle saddlebag without a warrant as incident to arrest?

Defendant Hall was arrested at approximately 2:30 p.m. on May 14, 2008 after he exited a house trailer at 2233 East 8th Street, Lot 340, Pueblo, Colorado. Agents had an active arrest warrant and there is no dispute the arrest itself was legal. Immediately before the arrest, agents had observed Hall and a female companion leave another residence and travel on Hall’s motorcycle to the house trailer. One officer, situated approximately 75 yards away, saw Hall near the saddle bag hanging over the rear tire of the motorcycle. At that distance he could not discern whether Hall opened the saddlebag, put something in or took something out. No officer in closer proximity testified to this saddlebag event. The officers watched the couple enter the house trailer. The couple remained inside for a period of time that has been estimated by various witnesses to range from five minutes to half an hour. The time spent inside is not critical to the issue presented on this Motion to Suppress.

Officers saw the couple leave the house trailer and as Hall was approaching the motorcycle he was placed under arrest. From a conflict in the testimony, I find that Hall was much more than an arm’s length distance from the motorcycle. Following the arrest and placing Hall in custody, the officers conducted a search of the motorcycle. The saddlebag was closed and fastened with a strap. The saddlebag was opened and in it was found approximately 100 grams of methamphetamine in three baggies, a 22 caliber Lorcin handgun and $6,000 cash. The question presented is whether the search of the motorcycle and saddlebag was incident to the arrest and thus did not require a warrant. I find it was not, and therefore the search was unreasonable as a matter of law.

In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763-64, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), for example, the Court established an exception to allow the contemporaneous search of a lawfully arrested person and the immediately surrounding area without a warrant in order to promote safety and prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence.

Supreme Court in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981), established a bright-line rule specific to automobile searches incident to arrest. “When a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile” and “examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment.” Id. at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860. See also United States v. Franco, 981 F.2d 470, 472 (10th Cir.1992). The rule from Belton is based on the “generalization that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or [evidence].” Belton at 460, 101 S.Ct. 2860. Under this same rationale, the Court expressly noted the passenger compartment did not encompass the trunk of the automobile, leaving it beyond the scope of a permissible search incident to arrest. Id. at 460 n. 4, 101 S.Ct. 2860.

Full case here: United States v. Hall, 603 F.Supp.2d 1308 (2009),

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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