Suppose you're a passenger in a car when the police pull it over to question the driver. Are you, as a passenger, free to go? Or are you seized by the police, just like the driver? The answer to that question determines whether you, the passenger, can challenge the constitutionality of the stop, because the Fourth Amendment bans "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Today, a unanimous Supreme Court said the answer is, yes, passengers are seized when the police pull over a car and driver.
"A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver," wrote Justice David Souter for the court. "A sensible person would not expect a police officer to allow people to come and go freely from the physical focal point of the investigation into faulty behavior or wrongdoing."
"It is also reasonable for passengers to expect that a police officer at the scene of a crime, arrest, or investigation will not let people move around in ways that could jeopardize his safety," Souter said.
The ruling is a legal victory for a California man, Bruce Brendlin, who was a passenger in a car pulled over by a deputy sheriff to check its registration. Brendlin was subsequently searched, and police found he was carrying drug paraphernalia. Today's ruling now allows him to challenge the constitutionality of the search. He claims it was improper because the police acted without reasonable suspicion in pulling the car over in the search place. Therefore, he argues, the resulting search was unconstitutional.