A search incident to arrest allows an officer to conduct a warrantless search of an individual if they are under arrest (or immediately preceding arrest) and the search is for officer safety or to preserve evidence.
However, this is a limited search that must be contemporaneous with the arrest and within the immediate vicinity of the arrest.
U.S. Supreme Court
Under this Court's decision in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), a police officer who makes a lawful arrest may conduct a warrantless search of the arrestee's person and the area ‘within his immediate control.’ Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 232 (2011)
S.C. Supreme Court
There are two historical rationales for the ‘search incident to arrest’ exception to the warrant requirement: (1) the need to disarm the suspect in order to take him into custody, and (2) the need to preserve evidence for later use at trial. A search may be conducted incident to an arrest only if it is substantially contemporaneous with the arrest and is confined to the immediate vicinity of the arrest. A warrantless search which precedes a formal arrest is valid if the arrest quickly follows. See also Rawlings v. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98, 111, 100 S.Ct. 2556, 2564, 65 L.Ed.2d 633 (1980) (search may precede a formal arrest if the officer has probable cause to arrest at the time of the search and the fruits of the search were not necessary to support probable cause to arrest).
As noted above, there are situations in which a warrantless search which immediately precedes an arrest is held lawful, in cases where the police officer is held to have had probable cause from the outset. State v. Freiburger, 366 S.C. 125, 132 (2005) (citations omitted)
Therefore, the Supreme Court set forth the new rule: police may search the passenger compartment of a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if (1) the arrestee is ‘unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,’ or (2) it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the crime of arrest. Robinson v. State, 407 S.C. 169, 189 (2014)
We hereby adopt the view that the trunk may be considered part of the passenger compartment and may therefore be searched pursuant to a lawful arrest when the trunk is reachable without exiting the vehicle, as it was in this case. Robinson v. State, 407 S.C. 169, 190–91 (2014)