Tuesday, June 19, 2007
High Court Says Passenger May Challenge Auto Search
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Passengers, like drivers, have a constitutional right to challenge the legality of police decisions to stop cars in which they are traveling, the U.S. Supreme Court said yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices reversed a contrary ruling of the California Supreme Court and sent Bruce Brendlin’s case back to the state court for further litigation.
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.
Brendlin, charged with possession and manufacture of methamphetamine, 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 him to get out of the car and placed him under arrest. The defendant then pled guilty, subject to his right of appeal, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that Brendlin was illegally detained as a result of the traffic stop and the stop itself was unlawful. But the high court, split 4-3, ruled that a passenger is not seized “as a constitutional matter” because he or she need submit to the officer’s show of authority.
Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the majority, which included Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce Kennard and Ming Chin. Justice Carol Corrigan dissented, joined by Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno. Corrigan said the ruling had “no sound basis in reason or policy.”
Justice David Souter, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, rejected Baxter’s reasoning.
“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,” Souter said. “A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver.”
The justice noted that all nine federal appellate courts, as well as appellate courts in all but two other states, have reached the same conclusion. Only the Colorado and Washington supreme courts have agreed that passengers lack standing.
Souter rejected Baxter’s concern that extending standing to passengers would necessarily lead to claims by the drivers of following vehicles that they too were being “seized” in the Fourth Amendment sense, since they would have to slow down in response to the officer’s exercise of authority over the stopped driver.
The distinction, Souter explained, is that “an occupant of a car who knows that the is stuck in traffic because another car has been pulled over (like the motorist who can’t even make out whey the road is suddenly clogged) would not perceive a show of authority as directed at him or his car.”
In a footnote, Souter suggested that the ruling will not necessarily apply to bus or taxi cab passengers. “[T]he relationship between driver and passenger is not the same in a common carrier as it is in a private vehicle, and the expectations of police officers and passengers differ accordingly,” the justice wrote.
Yesterday’s decision does not guarantee that Brendlin’s conviction will be thrown out. The courts could decide on remand that he was lawfully searched and seized pursuant to an outstanding warrant.
The case is Brendlin v. California, 06-8120.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company