The Fourth Amendment got a boost Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that passengers are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures during traffic stops.
The cased stemmed from a 2001 incident in Yuba City, Calif. Bruce Brendlin, wanted for a parole violation, was a passenger in a vehicle stopped by local police. Officers did not know Brendlin was in the car when they ordered the driver to pull over. During the stop, police searched Brendlin and found drug paraphernalia, leading to a criminal conviction.
But Brendlin appealed, arguing that there was no basis for the police stop or search. California officials maintained that the conviction should stand because only the driver enjoyed Fourth Amendment protection — arguing, in essence, that passengers are free to go at any time if riding in a vehicle pulled over by police.
The justices didn’t buy that logic.
“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 Souter wrote for the court. “A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver.”
He’s right. The notion that police would allow passengers in a vehicle to flee the scene during a traffic stop is laughable.
In addition, if the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies only to the driver, what’s to prevent the police from randomly stopping vehicles and subjecting passengers to warrantless searches?
Bruce Brendlin is not a sympathetic character. But even the state of California admitted that law enforcement officials had no reasonable basis to suspect wrongdoing by Brendlin. Their subsequent contention that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to Brendlin was a reach — and it’s welcome news that all nine high court justices agreed.