Police Vehicle Searches and Racial Profiling: An Empirical Study

October 1, 2022

In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court held in New York v. Belton that police officers could lawfully search virtually anywhere in a vehicle without a warrant after the arrest of any occupant in the vehicle. Then, in 2009, the Court reversed course in Arizona v. Gant, holding that police could only engage in vehicle searches after such arrests in a smaller number of extenuating circumstances. This series of cases became a flash point for the broader debate about the regulation of policing. Law enforcement groups argued that administratively complex rules, like those established in Gant, risk officer safety. But some scholars and civil rights activists worried that by giving police officers wider discretion to search vehicles incident to arrest, the Belton rule may have led to unjustified civil rights violations and racial profiling.

This Article argues that, by limiting vehicle searches incident to arrest, Gant may have disincentivized policing tactics that disproportionately target individuals of color without jeopardizing officer safety.

By utilizing a data set of traffic stops from thirteen law enforcement agencies in seven states, this Article presents an empirical study of the effects of shifting doctrines related to vehicle searches incident to arrest. This Article makes two findings. First, it finds no evidence that Gant endangered officer safety. Changes in state doctrines related to vehicle searches incident to arrest are not associated with increases in assaults of officers during traffic stops. Second, it hypothesizes that Gant may have reduced racial profiling. Gant may be linked to a somewhat larger decline in vehicle searches incident to arrest for nonwhite individuals relative to white individuals.

These findings are a reminder that seemingly neutral procedural choices by courts in regulating police behavior may have racially disparate effects. We conclude by arguing for the narrowing of the discretionary authority of police officers as a mechanism for reducing disparities in the criminal justice system.

October 2022

No. 1