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Old 06-18-2007, 07:50 PM
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Supreme Court re-affirms rights of car passengers

In a unanimous ruling today, the US Supreme Court ruled that passengers in private vehicles have the right to challenge unconstitutional seizures.

Applying a considerable dose of common sense, aligning itself with the overwhelming majority of lower courts, and voting unanimously, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a police traffic stop of a car also amounts to at least temporary detention of everyone in the vehicle, so passengers, as well as the driver, may challenge the legality of the stop.

The basic scenario was this:

1. In 2001, a sheriff's deputy in Sutter County, California spotted a car with expired registration tags, and a temporary operating permit visible in the rear window.

2. The police officer incorrectly thought that the vehicle could not be legally operated with expired tags, even though the temporary operating permit was in place.

3. The police officer pulled over the vehicle, thinking that he had probable cause. He recognized a passenger as a previous offender, ordered the passenger out of the car at gunpoint, arrested him, and searched the vehicle, on the grounds of the arrest.

4. The police officer searches the car, and finds contraband -- methamphetamine paraphernalia and substances used to produce methamphetamine. He arrests the passenger.

5. The passenger moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that there was no probable cause for the traffic stop. The thinking was that since the initial traffic stop was un-Constituational, the evidence couldn't be used.

6. US Supreme Court eventually sides with the passenger in a unanimous decision.

A few states have previously sided with the police officer's situation. Their line of thinking was that, technically, the passenger was not being "seized", and had the right to leave if he chose.

The US Supreme Court finally cleared it all up in a unanimous decision, essentially saying that while the passenger may have been "technically" free to leave, it's unreasonable to follow that line of thinking. They applied the "Mendenhall" test -- if a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave, then he can be considered to have been seized. Thus, Fourth Amendment protection for unreasonable search and seizure applies. Which, IMO, makes sense. When I've been a passenger in a car that's been pulled over, I never felt that it was OK for me to leave.

Not that the case exonerates an innocent angel -- the guy was caught with meth-lab supplies, which places him firmly at the top of most peoples' lists of universal scumbags.

I know we've discussed this before, in comments on how certain "car modification" laws are enacted as a pretext to stop drug dealers who are associated with automotive subcultures which often have flashy or highly-modified cars. Which is to say, if you pull over that purple Trans Am with tinted windows, blacklight ground effects, and a license plate that reads "Pimpin", you'll probably find something illegal. The logic there is that it's OK to "bend" the Constitution, if it results in nabbing some undesirables.

This unanimous ruling demonstrates that even a meth bust is not as important as upholding the Constitution.

More coverage:
Analysis: the rights of auto passengers (
High court says passengers may question legality of traffic stops (
Supreme Court affirms rights of passengers in cars stopped by police (
Supreme Court upholds rights for car passengers (


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Old 06-18-2007, 08:55 PM
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I'll bet that W never thought that his Court would turn on his Conservative Agenda.
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Old 06-19-2007, 12:19 AM
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It's about time... now why don't they apply that to the illegal, and unconstitutional patriot act?

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Old 06-19-2007, 09:48 AM
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The terms "W" and "conservative" don't belong in the same sentence.

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