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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Car Passengers

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
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.

The ruling overturned a California Supreme Court decision in the case of Bruce Edward Brendlin, who was arrested on parole violation and drug charges after a November 2001 traffic stop in Yuba City, Calif. Brendlin, who subsequently was sentenced to four years in prison, appealed his conviction on the grounds that the drug evidence should have been suppressed because the traffic stop amounted to "an unlawful seizure of his person," according to today's ruling.

Although the state acknowledged that police "had no adequate justification" to stop the car, in which Brendlin was a passenger in the front seat, it argued that he was not "seized" and thus could not challenge the government's action under the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure protections. Government lawyers also argued that Brendlin could not claim that the evidence against him was tainted by an unconstitutional stop, according to the ruling.

The California Supreme Court sided with the state in the case, known as Brendlin v. California, reasoning that Brendlin was not seized because the car's driver was the exclusive target of the traffic stop and that a passenger "would feel free to depart or otherwise to conduct his or her affairs as though the police were not present."

The Supreme Court, however, rejected that argument today on grounds that a "reasonable passenger" would not feel free to simply leave the scene of a traffic stop.

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."

The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP made similar arguments in support of Brendlin, arguing that if the Supreme Court ruled in California's favor, police would be able to conduct arbitrary traffic stops aimed at passengers, especially minorities.

Most state and federal courts already permitted challenges by passengers, the Associated Press reported. However, California, Colorado and Washington state did not.

The case originated when a deputy sheriff and his partner spotted a parked Buick with expired registration tags and, upon checking with a dispatcher, learned that an application for renewal of the registration was being processed. When the officers later saw the car on the road, the deputy sheriff decided to pull it over to verify that a temporary operating permit valid through the end of the month matched the vehicle. Police later acknowledged that there was nothing unusual about the permit.

The deputy sheriff, Robert Brokenbrough, saw a passenger in the front seat, asked him to identify himself and verified that he was "a parole violator with an outstanding no-bail warrant for his arrest," today's opinion said.

Brokenbrough then ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint and declared him under arrest. In a search, police found an orange syringe cap on Brendlin and syringes and marijuana on the driver, who also was arrested. In the car, police also found tubing, a scale and items used to produce *edit.

Brendlin was charged with possession and manufacture of *edit. He moved to suppress the evidence found on him and in the car as the fruits of an unconstitutional seizure, arguing that police lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle.

The trial court denied his motion to suppress, but the California Court of Appeal reversed the denial. The case then went to the state Supreme Court, which narrowly overturned the appellate court's decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court said it agreed to hear the case "to decide whether a traffic stop subjects a passenger, as well as the driver, to Fourth Amendment seizure." In vacating the California Supreme Court's judgment, Souter wrote, "We hold that a passenger is seized as well and so may challenge the constitutionality of the stop."

*content has been edited

News Hawk- User 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: The Washington Post
Author: William Branigin
Contact: E-mail William Branigin
Copyright: 2007 The Washington Post Company
Website: washingtonpost.com - nation, world, technology and Washington area news and headlines


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