High Court Says Passengers May Question Legality of Traffic Stops

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday that passengers in vehicles pulled over by the police have the same rights as drivers to challenge the legality of the traffic stop when it results in an arrest.

The court said that passengers, like the driver, are "seized" by police when the vehicle they are traveling in is stopped and are thus covered by the Fourth Amendment and allowed to challenge unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the specific case before the court, a California passenger named Bruce Brendlin was charged with drug possession because of drug paraphernalia found in the car in which he was traveling. He argued that the discovery of the evidence was the result of an unconstitutional seizure because police lacked probable cause to make the traffic stop.

But the California Supreme Court said Brendlin had no grounds to make such a challenge because he had not been seized by the police and had given tacit approval to the search by staying in the car rather than leaving the scene.

The Supreme Court said that made no sense.

"We think that in these circumstances any reasonable passenger would have understood the police officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court. During the case's oral arguments, several justices expressed that opinion.

The case, Brendlin v. California, is one of three cases that the court decided today either unanimously or with only one dissenter.

The rest of the court's term is not likely to be as harmonious. Before adjourning at the end of the month, the justices will announce about a dozen more decisions. Included on that list are such divisive topics as the use of race in school assignments, whether taxpayers have the right to sue over government grants to faith-based social service organizations and several First Amendment cases, including a challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act.

The justices are scheduled to meet again on Thursday.

The court's decision in Brendlin was in line with the interpretations of all lower federal and state courts, with the exception of the high courts in California, Colorado and Washington.

Souter said to go along with the California court's interpretation would "invite police officers to stop cars with passengers regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of anything illegal."

Groups who had supported Brendlin made the same point. "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," said Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The state conceded in the case that the officer did not have adequate justification to make the stop. But once the officer made the stop, he noticed that the passenger was "one of the Brendlin boys," and he knew that one of them -- Bruce, it turned out -- was wanted for parole violation. That led to the search of the car.

After finding Brendlin had the right to challenge the traffic stop, the Supreme Court sent the case back to California for further legal action.


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