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Passengers & Traffic Stops: Brendlin v. California (podcast transcript)

Solari: Hi. I’m Jenna Solari. I’m a Senior Instructor in the Legal Division at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. I’m here today with Scott Wright, who’s a Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. He’s detailed to the Legal Division as a Senior Instructor, and one of the areas of his expertise is the Fourth Amendment. In June of 2007, the Supreme Court looked at a case involving a police initiated traffic stop. Specifically, the Court considered the effect of a vehicle stop on the passengers in the car. The question was whether the stop amounted to a seizure not only of the driver, but also of the passengers, under the Fourth Amendment. So Scott, could you give us the facts of Brendlin v. California as the background to our discussion?

Wright: Sure Jenna. As you know, a law enforcement officer can stop someone in order to conduct a brief investigation, but the stop has to be supported by either at least a reasonable suspicion that the subject is involved in criminal activity or by probable cause. The officers in the Brendlin case pulled a vehicle over with no reasonable suspicion, no probable cause making the stop itself unlawful. After they ran a check on the passenger, they found him to be in violation of parole, arrested him, searched him, and then found some drug evidence on him. The passenger who was the defendant in the case tried to have the drug evidence suppressed; claiming that the initial stop violated the Fourth Amendment.

Solari: Well, but the passenger wasn’t the owner of the car, right?

Wright: No, he was just riding in the passenger seat.

Solari: So obviously he wasn’t the one driving either. So why did he believe that the evidence found on him should be suppressed?

Wright: Well the argument he made was that by stopping the vehicle, not only does that seize the driver, it also seizes the passenger. And any seizure, whenever you stop a car or a person has to be reasonable; justified by facts supporting probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The officers here didn’t have those facts.

Solari: So, as I understand it then, the passenger’s argument was that he was unlawfully seized by the officers when they pulled the car over. Because the stop was bad, and the stop led directly to the arrest and the search, any evidence should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule; as fruit of the poisonous tree.

Wright: That’s right Jenna.

Solari: So, how did the Supreme Court see that issue?

Wright: Well they agreed with the defendant; stopping a car in fact seizes the driver and any passengers in the car.

Solari: But couldn’t the passengers just walk away once the car’s stopped, I mean the driver’s really the one being pulled over?

Wright: Well the way the Court looked at that, is that a passenger would not feel free to leave. Let’s say for example you just got in a simple traffic stop for speeding, the passengers are not going to feel that they’re free to just waltz off with some officer approaching the vehicle. For one thing, the officers are likely going to want to control the passengers for their own safety, for safety reasons. And the existing case law allows that anytime they make a legal stop, whether it’s a traffic violation or a reasonable suspicion whatever it is, the officer’s entitled to hold the passengers in the car, or they can have the passengers get out of the car if needed, they can control their movements throughout the stop.

Solari: Well, so let’s sum this up. Stopping a vehicle seizes not only the driver, but the passengers in the car too. And the stop has to be reasonable or anyone in the vehicle can challenge it under the Fourth Amendment. Is that right?

Wright: Exactly Jenna. And any evidence found will end up being suppressed if the stop was unlawful. Also, since that would be a constitutional violation, there could be a basis for some liability under a Section 1983 suit or Bivens suit.

Solari: Well thanks, Scott, for explaining that Brendlin case for us. That sounds like a pretty important rule of law, especially for those officers out there who conduct traffic stops every day. For those of you who’d like to hear more of our Podcasts, you can find them at www.fletc.gov/legal/podcasts

Wright: Thanks Jenna.

Solari: Thanks Scott.