The Supreme Court said on Monday it would decide whether police officers can search a vehicle without a warrant once the suspect has been arrested and the scene secured.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal by Arizona officials of a ruling declaring such searches unconstitutional when the scene has been secured and the suspect has been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car under police supervision.
The high court's conservative majority in recent years has generally sided with the police while cutting back on the rights of criminal suspects in car cases.
The U.S. Constitution protects suspects against unreasonable searches and seizures of evidence.
The Arizona case will require the Supreme Court to reexamine its 1981 ruling that risks to officer safety and the preservation of evidence justify a warrantless car search as part of the arrest.
Arizona officials said the state Supreme Court effectively overruled the 1981 ruling in requiring that the police show that inherent dangers actually existed at the time of the search.
The case began in 1999 when the police in Tucson received a tip of drug activity at a house. Two officers went to the house, and when Rodney Gant answered the door he told them the owner was not home, but would return later in the day.
The officers left, but then discovered Gant had a suspended driver's license and an outstanding warrant for driving on a suspended license.