Search incident to a lawful arrest is another exception to the requirement that police obtain a warrant before executing a search. New Jersey law on this exception has been interpreted to provide New Jersey drivers with more protection under the state constitution than they would receive under the US Constitution.

In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the US Supreme Court ruled that when police effect an arrest, they are entitled to conduct an immediate search of the person so arrested in order to remove any evidence that could be used to resist arrest, effect an escape, or cause injury to the arresting officers or others. The court also held that the object of the search incident to an arrest could include evidence: fruits and instrumentalities of crime that may be secreted on the arrestee’s person. The scope of the search was not limited by the Court to the person of the individual being arrested, but included the area within the immediate control of the person (“within the person’s wingspan”).

Twenty years after the Chimel decision, the Court created a bright line rule for searches incident to arrest in the context of a motor vehicle stop. In New York v. Belton, the US Supreme Court held that when a police officer effects a lawful arrest of the occupant of a motor vehicle, the officer may, incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the vehicle. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). A motor vehicle may contain weapons which the arrestee may use to resist arrest or to injure police. The vehicle may also contain evidence that the arrestee may attempt to destroy or conceal. The police are permitted to search any closed containers within the passenger compartment to which the arrestee may have access. However, the Court was careful to exclude the trunk of the vehicle which may not be searched incident to arrest. Boxes, luggage, bags, and clothing are subject to search if they are within the passenger compartment.

The search of the vehicle should occur immediately after the arrest. It is acceptable that before the search is conducted, the defendant is secured in restraints and placed in a police car where they will not have access to evidence and cannot threaten the safety of the officers while they effectuate the valid search.