WASHINGTON—A routine traffic stop in California's rural Central Valley six years ago yielded drugs, arrests and a constitutional conundrum that finally reached the Supreme Court on Monday.
Passengers should be heeding this case. Police definitely are.
In hour-long oral arguments Monday morning, justices weighed whether a passenger in a stopped car is considered detained. Paradoxes complicate the case, which arose from a 2001 arrest in Yuba City, 40 minutes north of Sacramento.
For the first time, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal search and seizure cover passengers in a car that law enforcement officers have stopped. Some lower courts have ruled that such passengers are free to walk away. Other lower courts have ruled that passengers in a stopped car are, in fact, detained. The Supreme Court's ruling will resolve the ambiguity.
The twist, in the case of Brendlin v. California, is that the police win if passengers can walk away.
"Just because the police have some authority, that doesn't make you `seized,''' California Deputy Attorney General Clifford E. Zall told the Supreme Court.
It's a crucial distinction. If passengers aren't considered "seized" or detained during a car stop, they can't claim later that police violated the Fourth Amendment in collecting evidence.
Civil rights activists fear that a law enforcement victory in the case will lead to many more car passengers being searched.
The California Highway Patrol alone already makes more than 1 million car stops annually.
Defense attorneys argue—and some Supreme Court justices seemed to agree Monday—that passengers naturally think that they're restrained once the car is pulled over.
"Your forward movement has been curtailed by government action," Sacramento-based lawyer Elizabeth M. Campbell told the court, adding that "a reasonable person would not feel free to leave the car."
Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that he "wouldn't think about getting out of the car," and Justice David Souter added that "a reasonable person would assume the police were in control" at a stop.
Some of the court's conservatives echoed that view, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Campbell's client, Bruce Brendlin, is on the road to a complete win.
Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that law enforcement officials had good reason to search Brendlin once they had identified him as a parole violator. Conceivably, the court could agree that passengers are considered detained in a stopped car, while still giving police leeway to collect evidence of a suspected crime.
Brendlin's case began after 1 in the morning on Nov. 27, 2001.
Sutter County Deputy Sheriff Robert Brokenbrough pulled over a brown 1993 Buick Regal with expired registration tags. Although he had previously determined that it had temporary tags and a pending application for a new registration, Brokenbrough investigated further.
The deputy recognized Brendlin, the passenger, who was wanted for violating his parole. Searching Brendlin and the driver, deputies found syringes, 12 grams of marijuana and some methamphetamine. Brendlin later wanted the evidence thrown out, on the grounds that the original car stop was illegitimate.
Law enforcement officials eventually conceded that the deputy sheriff lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the car, since it had a temporary tag and a registration application pending.
The Fourth Amendment blocks the use in court of what lawyers call tainted fruit: evidence obtained as a result of illegal action. But if Brendlin never had been formally "seized," he couldn't challenge the evidence that police collected.
"He was free to leave," the Sacramento County Superior Court trial judge concluded, adding that Brendlin might simply have "opened the door and got out and taken a hike."
The California Supreme Court agreed 4-3 that passengers were free to leave and therefore unprotected by the Fourth Amendment. Only a handful of other states, including Washington and Colorado, have reached similar conclusions about passengers in stopped cars.
Brendlin ended up pleading guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine, and he was sentenced to four years in prison.
A ruling is expected by June.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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