Supreme Court: Passengers, Too, Can Contest Unlawful Traffic Stops
Passengers in vehicles pulled over by the police have just as much right as drivers to challenge the legality of the traffic stop and its consequences, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on June 18.
In reversing the California Supreme Court, the high court essentially ruled that an unlawful traffic stop violates the rights of everybody in a vehicle – including passengers, not just the driver. Everyone in the vehicle may therefore challenge the legality of the stop and any resulting search of the vehicle or the persons in it.
Since many unlawful traffic stops involve police officers becoming suspicious merely because of the vehicle occupants’ looks, race or ethnicity, “the ruling means that passengers, not just drivers, can bring civil rights lawsuits against police officers who practice racial profiling,” explained ACLUNC Staff Attorney Michael Risher, who helped draft the amicus brief (.pdf) that the ACLU filed together with the NAACP and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The high court decision came in the case of Bruce E. Brendlin (Brendlin v. California), a passenger in car that sheriff’s deputies stopped on Nov. 27, 2001 at 1:40 a.m. in Yuba City, Calif. They wanted to check the validity of its registration, they said.
The registration was in order, and the government later admitted that the officers had no valid reason to stop the car, making it an unlawful traffic stop. An officer, however, recognized Brendlin, who was a front-seat passenger, as a parole violator. They formally arrested him and searched him, the driver and the car.
The officers found an orange syringe cap in Brendlin’s possession and methamphetamine paraphernalia in the back seat. At a trial court hearing, Brendlin moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the search, arguing that the traffic stop was unlawful.
The trial court denied Brendlin’s motion, holding that the driver could suppress the evidence, but he could not because he was only a passenger. With the evidence from the search deemed admissible, Brendlin pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal the decision.
However, the California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, holding that Brendlin, like the driver, was also “seized” in the unlawful traffic stop, which violated Brendlin’s Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.
The California Supreme Court, however, overturned the Court of Appeal, stating that the drug evidence against Brendlin may not be suppressed, because only the driver had been seized by the unlawful stop.
The California high court held that Brendlin, as a passenger, did not have the same right as the driver, and that Brendllin gave tacit approval for the search by not leaving. Therefore, he has no legal ground to contest the search.
The Supreme Court disagreed, reversing the California court. “When police make a traffic stop,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the justices, “a passenger in the car, like the driver, is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and so may challenge the stop’s constitutionality.”
Souter further wrote that “any reasonable passenger would have understood the police officers to be exercising control” and that the passenger would have believed no one was free to leave without police permission.
Several justices expressed the same opinion during the oral arguments. To agree with the California high court’s decision, Souter said, would “invite police officers to stop cars with passengers regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of anything illegal.”
Almost all federal and state courts have also ruled that passengers have just as much Fourth Amendment rights as drivers. California, Colorado and Washington state courts were the only exceptions.
The ACLU applauded the Supreme Court ruling. “Today’s decision means that the police will no longer receive a free pass to violate the Constitution when they stop a car and its passengers without reason to believe that anyone in the car has violated the law. By recognizing that the average passenger does not feel free to leave the scene when the police pull over a car, the Court’s decision reflects common sense,” stated Steve R. Shapiro, ACLU National Legal Director.
Shapiro emphasized that by holding that both passengers and driver can object to an unconstitutional stop, “the decision properly deprives the police of what would otherwise be a virtual invitation to engage in racial profiling.”