Top 10 Cases for Police Series, Part 6

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Editor's Note: With so many cases affecting policing, the question often arises regarding which are the most important. If a law enforcement professional could choose only 10 cases to examine, which would those be? Included in this series is a list of what experts Rolando del Carmen and Jeffery Walker consider to be the top 10 cases most influencing day-to-day policing in the U.S. Continuing from our last installment, in reverse order, we give you number 5: Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).


After an arrest, police may search the area within a person’s immediate control.


Chimel was suspected of having robbed a coin shop. Armed with an arrest warrant (but without a search warrant), police officers went to Chimel’s house and were admitted by his wife. Chimel was not at home, but was immediately arrested when he arrived. The police asked Chimel if they could “look around.” Chimel denied the request, but the officers searched the entire house anyway and discovered some stolen coins. At the trial, the coins were introduced as evidence over Chimel’s objection. Chimel was convicted of robbery.


In the course of making a lawful arrest, may officers search the immediate area where the person was arrested without a search warrant? YES.

Supreme Court Decision

After making an arrest, the police may search the area within the person’s immediate control. The purpose of such a search is to discover and remove weapons and to prevent the destruction of evidence.


“When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer’s safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. . . . There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control.”

Case Significance

Chimel categorically states that the police may search the area in the arrestee’s “immediate control” when making a valid arrest, whether the arrest takes place with or without a warrant. That area of “immediate control” is defined by the Court as “the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.” Chimel therefore authoritatively settled an issue over which lower courts had given inconsistent and diverse rulings. The current rule is that the police may search without a warrant after a lawful arrest, but the extent of that search is limited to the area of the arrestee’s “immediate control.” The safest, and most limited, interpretation of the term “area of immediate control” is a person’s wingspan, where it might be possible to grab a weapon or destroy evidence. Some lower courts have given a more liberal interpretation to include such areas as the whole room in which the person is arrested. This interpretation appears to go beyond what the Court had in mind in Chimel.

For many more cases, see Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement, 8th ed., which includes short, easy-to-understand briefs of 185 cases of primary importance to law enforcement officials.


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