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U.S. Supreme Court Extends Fourth Amendment Protection to Vehicle Passengers

The United States Supreme Court has finally given vehicle passengers the same Fourth Amendment protection afforded to drivers. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, Docket No. 06-8120 (Decided June 18, 2007). It has long been recognized that a driver is seized at the moment he submits an officer’s show of authority by pulling his vehicle to the side of the road, but the Court had not ruled directly on whether passengers in the vehicle have the same protection.

Deputy Sheriff Robert Brokenbrough pulled over a vehicle without good cause. The officer recognized the passenger, Brendlin, but could not remember whether he or his brother had jumped parole. After ordering Brendlin out of the vehicle, Brokenbrough searched Brendlin and the vehicle. He found a number of items used to make methamphetamine. Brendlin was charged with and convicted of possession and manufacture of the drug.

The trial court had refused to suppress the evidence, saying that Brendlin had not been seized until he was ordered out of the car. Brendlin’s criminal defense attorney had argued he was seized when the car was pulled over without reasonable suspicion, requiring suppression of the evidence. The California Supreme Court upheld the trial court, opining that a passenger “would feel free to depart or otherwise to conduct his or her affairs as though the police were not present.” Brendlin at 3. 136 P.3d 845, 848 (Cal. 2006).

Justice Souter wrote for a unanimous court. He said “a seizure occurs if ‘in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.’” Brendlin at 4. United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980). A reasonable passenger, during a traffic stop, would not believe he was free to leave without police permission; a “passenger will expect to be subject to some scrutiny, and his attempt to leave the scene would be so obviously likely to prompt an objection from the officer that no passenger would feel free to leave in the first place.” Brendlin at 7. United States v. Drayton, 536 U.S. 194, 202 (2002).

A passenger should also expect an officer to forbid people from moving around in ways that could jeopardize his safety. Brendlin at 7. In fact, the Court held, in Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997), that an officer may order a passenger out of the car as a precautionary measure, without reasonable suspicion the passenger poses a risk. “‘The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.’” Brendlin at 7. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 702-703 (1981).

The Court held Brendlin was seized from the moment the car halted on the side of the road and that it was error to deny his suppression motion on the ground that seizure occurred only at the formal arrest. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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