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82 Tulane Law Review 77 (2007)


In Thornton v. United States, the United States Supreme Court applied the bright-line rule of New York v. Belton to uphold the search of containers in the passenger compartment of a car when the arresting officer made initial contact with the suspect alter the suspect had parked his car and started walking away. Justice Scalia concurred in the judgment but criticized the majority for relying on the bright-line rule of Belton to uphold the search, stating that the Court’s effort to apply the Belton rule stretched that doctrine "beyond its breaking point."

Justice Scalia found the search in Thornton lawful by applying a more general reasonableness test. He stated he would "limit Belton searches to cases where it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." Virtually every commentator who has written on Thornton has characterized Justice Scalia’s approach as “more honest" and "built on firmer ground" than Belton but nevertheless, has rejected the approach, typically over a concern that it authorizes a search of an automobile on less than probable cause.

This article argues that Justice Scalia’s approach in Thornton should be embraced by commentators who seek greater protection for citizens as they travel the streets and highways in their vehicles. It explores the potential for applying the reasonableness test as envisioned by Justice Scalia to limit the various bright-line rules the Court has authorized over the years. Among other advantages, such an approach would limit racial profiling and other pretextual searches, thereby providing citizens protection from one of the greatest current threats to individual liberties.