The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 15 (2002-03)

Searches Incident to a Lawful Arrest: Why the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Stehman Limited That Particular Exception to the Fourth Amendment
By Roxanne M. Sosnowski


In New York v. Belton, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment was not violated by a warrantless search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to the lawful, custodial arrest of an occupant of the vehicle.1 In People v. Stehman, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to extend the Belton exception to the search of a vehicle where the defendant had voluntarily exited his vehicle and had begun walking away from it when the officer initiated the contact that led to the defendant’s arrest.2 The court noted that while occupants of a vehicle could not avoid a search incident to a lawful arrest merely by exiting the vehicle as officers approach, the fact that the defendant in Stehman exited the vehicle prior to officer contact, combined with the fact that the officer orchestrated the arrest to occur at a time after the defendant left the vehicle, militated in favor of the conclusion that the search would not qualify under the Belton exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.3

This article will first set out the facts and the holding of the Stehman case.4 It will then discuss the bright line rule set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Belton to govern a subsequent search of a vehicle incident to arrest,5 and show how the Illinois Supreme Court applied the Belton rule to the facts involved in Stehman. Finally, the article will examine how the rule adopted in Illinois differs from those used in other jurisdictions.

People v. Stehman:

Michael Stehman testified that on January 13, 2000, he was returning to work at 5 p.m. after making pizza deliveries.6 As he pulled his vehicle into the employee parking lot of the restaurant, defendant noticed a police squad car sitting in a parking lot across the street.7 He parked his vehicle, got out, and began to walk towards the restaurant.8 The vehicle was parked 7 to 10 feet away from the restaurant with the windows rolled up and the doors closed.9 Just before Stehman reached the entrance of the restaurant, he heard his name called and turned around.10 He saw a uniformed officer and noticed that the officer’s squad car had pulled up directly behind his vehicle.11 He then handed the delivery bags to his Ron, his brother, who also worked for the restaurant and was standing by the door.12 The officer asked the defendant if his name was Michael Stehman, and when he replied in the affirmative, the officer told him that he had a warrant to arrest him for failure to appear in court.13

Upon arrest, the officer performed a pat down search, put Stehman in handcuffs, and, and placed him in the back seat of the police vehicle. The officer walked towards Stehman’s car, and Stehman began yelling from the back seat of the squad car that he did not want the officer to search his vehicle.14 Stehman also told Ron that the officer did not have permission to search his vehicle, and when Ron relayed that message to the officer, he replied: "I don’t give a f— what he has to say."15 The officer then searched the vehicle and found a pipe.

Officer Thomas Richardson testified to a somewhat different set of facts.16 He stated that he was on duty January 13, 2000, when he received information regarding an outstanding warrant for Stehman’s arrest.17 A dispatcher informed the officer as to Stehman’s place of employment and the type of vehicle that he drove.18 The officer then drove to the restaurant, parked across the street, and waited for Stehman.19 Upon seeing a vehicle matching the dispatcher’s description, he pulled his squad car behind that vehicle, and the parties exited their respective vehicles at the same time.20 Officer Richardson stated that after he verified the defendant’s identity, he placed him under arrest.21

Officer Richardson admitted that he did not have a warrant to search the Stehman vehicle nor did he ask permission to do so.22 According to him, the search of the defendant’s vehicle took place as incident to the arrest and also as an inventory search pursuant to the police department’s tow policy.23 Further, while Richardson did not believe that Stehman could escape from the back of the police vehicle, he did have some concern for his safety because Ron, the defendant’s brother, was being "mouthy."24 However, Richardson later admitted that Ron never threatened him in any way.25

Stehman was ultimately tried for unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.26 At trial, the court granted a defense motion to suppress the evidence and quash the arrest.27 The State appealed, and the Second District affirmed the lower court, holding that the search of defendant’s vehicle was not a search incident to arrest pursuant to either New York v. Belton28 or Chimel v. California.29 The Illinois Supreme Court allowed the State’s petition for leave to appeal.30

New York v. Belton:

An automobile in which Belton was one of the occupants was stopped by a New York State police officer for speeding.31 The officer smelled marijuana and spotted on the floor of the vehicle an envelope he suspected of containing the drug.32 He ordered the occupants out of the car and arrested them for unlawful possession of marijuana.33 After searching each of the occupants, he searched the passenger compartment of the car and found a jacket that belonged to Belton.34 The officer unzipped one of the pockets and discovered cocaine.35 Subsequently, Belton was indicted for criminal possession of a controlled substance.36 After the trial court denied his motion to suppress the cocaine seized from his jacket pocket, defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser offense while preserving his claim that the cocaine had been illegally seized in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.37

In a majority opinion delivered by Justice Stewart, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the search of defendant’s jacket was a search incident to a lawful custodial arrest and thus did not violate the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments.38 The jacket, located inside the passenger compartment of the car, was "within the arrestee’s immediate control" within the meaning of Chimel v. California.39 Chimel held that an officer making a lawful custodial arrest may search the person of the arrestee and the area within his immediate control, into which the arrestee might reach in order to obtain a weapon or to destroy evidence.40 The Belton rule addressed the applicability of Chimel to automobiles, holding that "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."41

Application of the Belton rule to People v. Stehman:

The Illinois Supreme Court began its review in Stehman by accepting the determination of the trial court that Officer Richardson was not a credible witness.42 The trial court found that the officer was not in danger when the search was conducted, and defendant had stopped his vehicle and was walking across the parking lot when he was arrested.43 Agreeing with the appellate court that "these findings of fact were not manifestly erroneous," the Illinois Supreme Court conducted a de novo review of the State’s challenge based upon the trial court’s findings of fact.44

The State argued that the holding of the appellate court, i.e. that the search of defendant’s vehicle was not a lawful search incident to arrest, was contrary to Illinois precedent and disregarded the purpose of the bright-line rule stated in Belton.45 The Stehman court noted that the United States Constitution and the Illinois Constitution protect every citizen from unreasonable searches and seizures.46 The court recognized that a warrantless search or seizure is per se unreasonable unless it comes within one of a few recognized exceptions.47 One such exception, which was found to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, is a search incident to a lawful arrest.48 The court acknowledged the rule from Belton, yet noted that the United States Supreme Court had declined to extend the bright-line rule to situations "where the concern for officer safety is not present to the same extent and the concern for the destruction or loss of evidence is not present at all."49

The issue in Stehman was whether Belton extended to a situation where the first contact the defendant had with the officer occurred after exiting the vehicle.50 The court answered this question by applying an analysis from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals: "where the defendant has voluntarily exited the automobile and begun walking away from the automobile before the officer has initiated contact with him, the case does not fit within Belton’s bright-line rule, and a case by case analysis of the reasonableness of the search under Chimel becomes necessary."51 In the case at bar, defendant voluntarily exited his car and began walking away before the officer stopped him.52 The court found that under those circumstances, where the police first confront the defendant outside of his vehicle, "the ambiguity which Belton seeks to avoid no longer exists, and the rationale for its bright-line rule is absent."53 Thus, where the circumstances fall outside the scope of the Belton Rule, the factors of Chimel regarding officer safety and evidence preservation would need to be present in order for a search incident to arrest to be lawful.54

Applying Chimel to Stehman, the court concluded that the search of the vehicle was not incident to arrest, because the passenger compartment of the car was beyond Stehman’s immediate control during the time in which Officer Richardson arrested him.55 Further, the court found it clear that Officer Richardson created the situation that, according to the State, justified the search.56 By using the employment information of the defendant, Officer Richardson was able to coordinate defendant’s arrest with a time when he would be a recent occupant of his vehicle. The court found that even those courts that had interpreted the Belton Rule more broadly, such as the Seventh Circuit, had declined to hold "that officers may search by artificially creating a situation to fit within an exception to the fourth amendment warrant requirement."57 Thus, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the search of the passenger compartment of defendant’s vehicle could not be justified as a search incident to arrest, because the defendant had voluntarily exited his car and was walking away from it when the officer initiated contact, which ultimately led to the defendant’s arrest.58


With the Stehman opinion, Illinois joins other jurisdictions such as the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and the states of Florida and Michigan in finding that Belton’s bright-line rule does not extend to situations where the first contact the defendant has with the officer occurs after exiting the vehicle.59 The Stehman court noted that some jurisdictions that applied the Belton rule defined the word "occupant" more broadly to allow for a search of a vehicle incident to arrest where the defendant was a recent occupant and the arrest was made near the vehicle, although there was no police contact prior to the arrestee exiting the vehicle.60 However, the Stehman court distinguished those decisions based upon the facts involved in the case before it, noting that Officer Richardson created the situation in which the arrest would take place after Stehman left his vehicle. The significance of this holding is that it reinforces Fourth Amendment protection for defendants arrested by police officers who arrange the time of arrest to coincide with defendant’s recent occupancy of a vehicle.

1 New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 464 (1981).

2 People v. Stehman, No. 92287, 2002 WL 31839220, *1 (Ill. Dec. 19, 2002).

3 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *1.

4 Id.

5 New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981).

6 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *3.

7 Id.

8 Id.

9 Id.

10 Id.

11 Id. at *4.

12 Id.

13 Id.

14 Id.

15 Id. at *4.

16 Id.

17 Id.

18 Id.

19 Id.

20 Id.

21 Id.

22 Id.

23 Id.

24 Id. at *4.

25 Id.

26 Id. at *3.

27 Id.

28 New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981).

29 Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).

30 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *3.

31 Belton, 453 U.S. at 456.

32 Id.

33 Id.

34 Id.

35 Id.

36 Id.

37 Id.

38 Id. at 463.

39 Id., citing Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. at 762-63.

40 Id.

41 Id. at 464.

42 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *4.

43 Id.

44 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220 at *5.

45 Id.

46 Id.

47 Id.

48 United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224-26 (1973).

49 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220 at *6, citing Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 119 (1998).

50 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220 at *7.

51 United States v. Hudgins, 52 F.3d 115 (6th Cir. 1995).

52 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220 at *7.

53 Id.

54 Id.

55 Id.

56 Id.

57 United States v. Arango, 879 F.2d 1501, 1506 (7th Cir. 1989).

58 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *8.

59 Thomas v. State, 761 So.2d 1010 (Fla. 1999); People v. Fernengel, 549 N.W.2d 361 (Mich. Ct. App. 1996).

60 Stehman, 2002 WL 31839220, at *7.

Roxanne Sosnowski is a second year law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law. She serves as Dean of the Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity, Coke Senate and will serve as External Publications Editor of the Law Review next year.

DCBA Brief