Supreme Court Rules for Passengers at Traffic Stops
Often I receive phone calls from citizens who have been issued a traffic ticket and/or arrested not because of anything these citizens were doing while driving, but because they were passengers in vehicles that were stopped for something totally unrelated to what the police officer is now alleging against the passenger. This begs the question: As a passenger, do I have the same right as the driver to challenge a traffic stop? Now you do. On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that a passenger has the same right as the driver to challenge a traffic stop. The legal term is called standing, and now passengers have standing to challenge a traffic stop. 47 states and 9 federal circuit courts already held that when a car is pulled over, the passenger is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes--in other words, the passenger, as well as the driver, do not feel free to leave. However, California, Colorado, and the State of Washington have in the past held that passengers are not so seized. This most recent Supreme Court decision brings these three states in line with the rest of the country, and readers of this blog who are Washington drivers from Seattle to Spokane should be especially pleased. For those of you who are interested in this particular case, it's called Brendlin v. California, No. 06-8120. Here's a brief description of the major facts and the procedural history: A police officer in California, Officer Brokenbrough, illegally stopped a car that had a temporary operating permit. The officer knew that a renewal registration form was being processed, but he stopped the vehicle anyway. When he stopped the car, he recognized one of the passengers as "one of the Brendlin brothers," and one of the brothers was wanted on an arrest warrant. After other officers arrived, Officer Brokenbrough ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint. Upon completing searches incident to arrest of the driver and passenger Brendlin, officers searched the car and found tubing, a scale, and other methamphetamine production components. The officers also found contraband on the driver. Brendlin moved to suppress all these items but the trial court found the stop lawful and the trial court denied the motion. Brendlin pleaded guilty and received four years in prison, subject to an appeal. Brendlin won his appeal at the Court of Appeal of California, but the California Supreme Court reversed and depublished the Court of Appeal opinion. The Supreme Court of the United States granted cert to decide whether a traffic stop subjects a passenger, as well as the driver, to Fourth Amendment seizure. As I noted earlier, the Supreme Court held that indeed, a passenger is also seized. The Court vacated the decision of the California Supreme Court, and the case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion. Passengers can now rest a little easier in knowing that if their drivers are stopped, both driver and passenger will enjoy the same right to challenge the stop under the Fourth Amendment.