WASHINGTON — The Constitution protects car passengers as well as drivers from illegal search and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a case arising out of a late-night stop in California's Central Valley, the court agreed that passengers enjoy the same constitutional guarantees as drivers. When a car is stopped, both driver and passenger are in police hands and therefore can't be searched without due cause, the court ruled.
"A person is seized by the police and thus entitled to challenge the government's action under the Fourth Amendment when the officer by means of physical force or show of authority terminates or restrains his freedom of movement," Justice David Souter wrote.
The ruling marks the first time the court has ruled definitively that a police stop affects drivers and passengers alike. All will now be covered by the Fourth Amendment's prohibition "against unreasonable searches and seizures."
This gives defense attorneys more power to challenge arrests in which police find contraband such as drugs or guns. With the California Highway Patrol alone making more than 3.1 million vehicle stops every year, search and seizures are an everyday occurrence.
The unanimous ruling by a largely conservative court stunned law enforcement officials and the state of California. But it was a rare moment of good fortune for Bruce Brendlin, a drug user who has spent years cycling through jails and prisons.
"I had expected we would prevail," said Elizabeth Campbell, Brendlin's Sacramento-based attorney, "but a 9-0 opinion from this particular court, for a defense attorney, is a big thrill."
Brendlin's original attorney, Tim Warriner of Sacramento, added that from the moment of Brendlin's arrest, he thought "the idea that the driver would have (Fourth Amendment protection), but that Mr. Brendlin did not, merely because he was a passenger, seemed to defy logic."
Campbell cautioned, though, that relatively few other passengers may prevail in court as a direct result of the ruling Monday. First, the traffic stop itself would have to be deemed illegal. A Philadelphia-based appellate court noted last year that "rarely" happens.
"The fact is, it's not that hard to find a reasonable justification for stopping a vehicle," said California Deputy Attorney General Clifford Zoll. "The vehicle code is filled with reasons to pull over a car."
Zoll nonetheless added that he was "disappointed" in the court's opinion.
Brendlin already has served the four-year prison sentence that arose from his original arrest. The main legal implication for him is that this conviction, now voided, can't be used against him for future sentencing purposes under California's tough Three Strikes sentencing laws.
The case arose from Brendlin's arrest made early in the morning of Nov. 27, 2001.
In the rural town of Yuba City, a Sutter County deputy sheriff pulled over a brown 1993 Buick Regal with expired registration tags. The deputy subsequently determined the car had temporary tags.
The deputy, nonetheless, persisted in questioning the driver and recognized passenger Brendlin as a parole violator. Deputies searched Brendlin at gunpoint, finding a syringe cap in his clothing and material for making methamphetamine in the car.
California officials subsequently conceded that the deputy initially had no reasonable basis for suspecting wrongdoing by Brendlin, since the car was being operated legally. Brendlin argued that this meant that the evidence from the search should be thrown out because his Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
California officials argued that the Fourth Amendment didn't apply, since Brendlin was free to walk away from the police encounter. The Supreme Court didn't buy the argument.
"Even when the wrongdoing is only bad driving, the passenger will reasonably expect to be subject to some scrutiny," Souter wrote, "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."