Friday, June 30, 2006
Supreme Court Approves Search of Passenger in Stopped Vehicle
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Passengers of a vehicle pulled over in a police traffic stop are not “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Reversing a Court of Appeal holding that traffic stops necessarily result in the detention of both drivers and passengers, the high court in a 4-3 decision affirmed Bruce Brendlin’s conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine.
Brendlin was the passenger of a Buick that Sutter County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Charles Brokenbrough stopped in 2001 on the basis of expired registration tabs. Although he learned that there was a pending application for the registration’s renewal, Brokenbrough directed the driver to pull over in order to investigate the validity of the temporary operating permit taped to the car’s rear window.
Testimony at a suppression hearing indicated that the deputy approached the car’s driver side and asked for the driver’s license, and upon recognizing Brendlin as a possible parolee at large and verifying that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint and arrested him for parole violation. During a search incident to the arrest, Brokenbrough found an orange syringe cap on Brendlin, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia on the driver and in the back seat of the car.
Motion to Suppress
Brendlin moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that Brokenbrough’s detention of the Buick and its driver constituted an illegal seizure of his person that tainted all of the subsequently discovered evidence.
In denying the motion to suppress, Sutter Superior Court Judge Christopher R. Chandler held that Brendlin was seized not at the point of the traffic stop but rather when Brokenbrough commanded out of the car and placed him under arrest. Until then, Chandler reasoned, “[Brendlin] was free to leave…if he wanted to.”
The Court of Appeal found that Chandler erred in not suppressing the evidence Brokenbrough seized from Brendlin and the Buick, reasoning that Brendlin was illegally detained as a result of the traffic stop and the stop itself was unlawful.
But Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, said the Court of Appeal incorrectly based its ruling on the fact that a traffic stop curtails a passenger’s freedom of movement.
“A police detention of an orderly pushing a wheelchair-bound individual or a detention of a parent pushing a child in a stroller may well incidentally curtail the freedom of action of the passengers who are dependent on those adults. …But it is absurd to say that either passenger has thereby been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” Baxter said.
While it is clear that the “progress” of a passenger in a pulled-over car is “momentarily curtailed,” the justice explained, it is the driver and not the passenger against whom police are asserting authority. Passengers may in most cases choose to remain in the car until it stops and to stay until police complete their investigation, but they are in reality free to leave the car at anytime unless the police say otherwise—unlike the driver who must submit to the officer’s show of authority, Baxter said.
Pointing out the distinction between being stopped “as a practical matter” and being seized as a “as a constitutional matter,” the justice said that a rule equating the two “would encompass even those motorists following the vehicle subject to the traffic stop, who, by virtue of the original detention, are forced to slow down and perhaps even come to a halt in order to accommodate the vehicle’s submission to police authority.”
“There is no need to torture the definition of a seizure to protect the security of passengers,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce Kennard and Ming Chin joined in the opinion.
In a dissent, Justice Carol A. Corrigan, joined by Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno, criticized the majority’s ruling as providing “no sound basis in reason or policy.”
Noting that eight federal circuit courts of appeal and 21 state’s appellate courts have adopted the view that passengers are detained during traffic stops, Corrigan concluded that the “commonsense approach” would be to hold that passengers are seized from the time an officer pulls the car over until he tells the passengers they are free to leave or releases all occupants of the vehicle after completing the traffic stop.
In a companion case, the justices unanimously held that police lawfully stopped a vehicle that was missing a front license plate but displayed what appeared to be a current temporary operating permit.
The cases are People v. Brendline, 06 S.O.S. 3354, and People v. Saunders, 06 S.O.S. 3362.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company