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.

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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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Gollum says:

    What’s more astounding is that the Court seems to think cops aren’t already stopping cars “regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of anything illegal.”

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    What you are missing is that the court only provides a remedy for criminals who have a right impinged. The driver status was already resolved. If there was concern about not pulling cars indiscriminately, that should have been covered by the settled law on drivers rights. But because an innocent person who has their car stopped and searched has no remedy, the supreme court extended the right to passengers.

    Perhaps the solution would be to have remedies that allow equal relief to the innocent and the criminal, rather than just relief for criminals.

  3. Billy says:

    Perhaps the solution would be to have remedies that allow equal relief to the innocent and the criminal, rather than just relief for criminals.

    I thought there were civil remedies available for people who have their constitutional rights violated by government officials (provided they can get past both sovereign immunity and prove damages). I just don’t know what remedy you’d give a driver in this circumstance – the value of his time wasted by the police? No harm = no remedy, and I don’t think it’s a good policy move to start considering offense at law enforcement actions, wrongful as they might be, actionable activities.

    I just don’t know how the Supreme Court of California could have thought that Mendenhall didn’t apply to seized passengers in the first place. Obviously this is a totally common sense ruling.