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Supreme Court Ruling on Car Search Makes Students' Day

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that significantly restricted police car searches during arrests made the day for students at the School of Law's Supreme Court Clinic.

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April 22, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
CHICAGO --- The U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday that significantly restricted police car searches during arrests made the day for students at Northwestern University School of Law's Supreme Court Clinic.

This time, two Northwestern students, Ira Karoll and Jonathan Hawkins, now in their third year of law school, worked with Northwestern professors and attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP to help prepare respondent's counsel for oral argument. (Three former Northwestern Law students assisted in drafting the merits brief for Arizona v. Gant.)

To come up with sample questions for counsel, Karoll and Hawkins reviewed briefs, relevant Supreme Court precedent and transcripts from similar Supreme Court cases.

Now in its third year, the Supreme Court Clinic, part of the Appellate Advocacy Program in the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern Law, is giving the 10 or so second- and third-year students who participate in the course each year experiences of a lifetime.

Students assist lawyers in Sidley Austin's Supreme Court pro bono practice, made up mostly of criminal cases. Classes are taught mostly by Sidley lawyers, including Carter Phillips and Jeffrey Green, partners well known for their high court expertise.

"These students are helping to shape the law of the land," said Green, who delights in hearing from clinic alums about prominent references to cases they worked on while in the Supreme Court Clinic. "The students work extra hard because they know what they are working on will often go right into the legal textbooks."

The advocacy principles the students learn translate to all types of legal work and that is especially true for advocacy at the Supreme Court. "Typically, the issues we deal with have already been the subject of a great deal of thought, argument and dispute," said Sarah O'Rourke Schrup, clinical assistant professor and director, Appellate Advocacy Program, at Northwestern Law. "That's why they are so fascinating -- and such hard work. Just getting the court to review a case requires nuance and unique skill."

Arizona v. Gant strongly affirms the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. Yesterday, the Supreme Court rejected an overly expansive construction of its 1981 decision in New York v. Belton. In essence, Belton commonly was interpreted to mean that police officers were free to search vehicles based on nothing more than the fact they just arrested an occupant.

The court ruled that authorities may search a vehicle during an arrest "only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest."

That, the majority argued, was one of the main rationales for Belton but was largely ignored by police officers and lower courts. The ruling does not preclude searches of vehicles during arrests, but, practically speaking, it means that many arrests for traffic offenses will not by themselves allow police officers to search vehicles.