Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned a California Supreme Court decision that rejected a passenger’s constitutional challenge to a traffic stop under the rationale that the driver is the “seized” party under Fourth Amendment protection, not the passenger.
The 13-page opinion in Brendlin v. California by Justice David H. Souter expands the meaning of “seized” to everything in the vehicle, including passengers – a fact recognized in several previous opinions by the Supreme Court.
The case involves a sheriff’s deputy in California who spotted a car with expired registration tags while on patrol. The car did display a temporary operating permit in the rear window, but the officer nevertheless believed that the car could not be operated on expired tags and pulled it over.
Subject Brendlin identified himself to the officer, who recognized him as one of the Brendlin brothers. He knew that either this Brendlin or his brother was a parole violator, and contacted the dispatcher for verification. When the dispatcher responded the officer learned that he had the right Brendlin in custody.
The officer ordered the passenger out of the car at gunpoint and arrested him. In a search of the stopped car “incident to arrest,” the officer found an orange syringe cap and items related to drug manufacturing. Brendlin was charged with various narcotics offenses, and he moved to suppress the evidence, claiming it had resulted from the unlawful stop of the car and his “seizure.”
The trial court denied the suppression motion, concluding that, as a passenger, Brendlin had not been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes. Brendlin then pleaded guilty, subject to appealing on the suppression issue. A divided California Supreme Court ultimately agreed with that conclusion.
In vacating that decision Monday, the Supreme Court gives Brendlin the opportunity to fight the traffic stop.
In the short opinion, Souter explains at length that the passengers in a vehicle are just as “seized” as the driver, and aren’t free to leave until the officer terminates the encounter. It therefore makes sense that they can challenge the constitutionality of the stop.
It was the right decision by a unified Supreme Court.