CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

SCOTUS Upholds Rights of Passengers

Supreme_court_20From A passenger as well as a driver has the right to challenge the legality of a police officer’s decision to stop a car, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously today in Brendlin v. California, No. 06-8120.

The ruling came in the case of Bruce E. Brendlin, who was a passenger in a car that was stopped by a deputy sheriff in Yuba City, Calif., on Nov. 27, 2001. The deputy soon ascertained that Mr. Brendlin was an ex-convict who was wanted for violating his parole. An ensuing search of the driver, the car and Mr. Brendlin turned up methamphetamine supplies.

Eventually, Mr. Brendlin pleaded guilty to a drug charge and drew a four-year prison sentence. But he continued to appeal on the issue of whether the evidence of drugs found on him resulted from an illegal search and should have been suppressed because of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The California Supreme Court found that, consitutionally speaking, only the driver had been “seized” by the stop, and that therefore Mr. Brendlin had no basis for challenging the search that turned up the drugs. The State of California made that argument again when the case was heard before the United States Supreme Court on April 23.

But Mr. Brendlin’s lawyer, Elizabeth M. Campbell, argued that when an officer makes a traffic stop, “he seizes not only the driver of the car, but also the car, and every person and every thing in that car.”

The justices agreed. “When police make a traffic stop, a passenger in the car, like the driver, is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and so may challenge the stop’s constitutionality,” Justice David H. Souter wrote for the high court.

Most federal and state courts have ruled that passengers in a traffic stop are also “seized,” legally speaking, and thus may challenge the legality of the stop. But the state courts in Washington and Colorado, as well as California, had held otherwise until today.

The justices rejected the state of California’s contention that, if they found in favor of Mr. Brendlin, it would mean that passengers in buses and taxis would also be “seized” if the driver were pulled over for, say, running a red light. “The relationship between driver and passenger is not the same in a common carrier as it is in a private vehicle, and the expectations of police officers and passengers differ accordingly,” the ruling said.

Although today’s ruling overturns the California Supreme Court’s ruling against Mr. Brendlin, it does not necessarily end his legal troubles. Justice Souter said that it will now be up to the state courts to determine whether the drug evidence should have been suppressed. Prosecutors may try to show that the search was justified on other grounds, in part because Mr. Brendlin was a parole violator and the subject of an outstanding warrant.  Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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