WASHINGTON -- Passengers, like drivers, have a constitutional right to challenge the legality of police decisions to stop cars in which they are traveling, the Supreme Court said yesterday.
Bruce Brendlin was convicted of drug possession after a sheriff's deputy stopped a car in which he was a passenger in Yuba City, Calif., in 2001.
Brendlin was wanted for a parole violation, although the deputy who ordered the car to pull over didn't know beforehand that Brendlin was in the vehicle. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the drug evidence should be suppressed because it was found as the result of an illegal stop. The state has since conceded there was no basis to stop the car.
But California argued that Brendlin's conviction should stand because only the driver was covered by the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The state said drivers, not passengers, are the focus of traffic stops.
Justice David Souter, writing for a unanimous court, disagreed. "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 American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP backed Brendlin, arguing that a ruling in the state's favor would encourage police to conduct arbitrary traffic stops to target passengers, especially minorities, who lack the same rights as drivers.
Most state and federal courts already permit challenges by passengers. California, Colorado, and Washington state do not.