Supreme Court: Car Passengers Have Rights
The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that passengers in a car have the same Constitutional protections as drivers from illegal police conduct.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that a passenger in a vehicle has the same right as a driver to challenge the constitutionality of a traffic stop. The court decided that when police stop a vehicle, passengers are “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and — like drivers — can dispute the legality of a search.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice David H. Souter ruled that “a traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver. . . .” He said a “a sensible person would not expect a police officer to allow people to come and go freely” from the scene of a stop. The court found that “Brendlin was seized from the moment [the driver’s] car came to a halt on the side of the road, and it was error to deny his suppression motion on the ground that seizure occurred only at the formal arrest.”
A ruling that a passenger in a car is not seized in a traffic stop “would invite police officers to stop cars with passengers regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of anything illegal,” Souter wrote. “The fact that evidence uncovered as a result of an arbitrary traffic stop would still be admissible against any passengers would be a powerful incentive to run the kind of ‘roving patrols’ that would still violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment right.”
That this was not settled law decades ago is astounding. It seems manifestly obvious that 1) a policeman pulling over one’s car has placed a powerful restriction on one’s liberty and 2) that this is just as true of passengers as drivers.