U.S. Supreme Court Protects 4th Amendment Rights Of Automobile Passengers

In Brendlin v. California, No. 06-8120 (June 18, 2007), the Supreme Court held that when police make a traffic stop, a passenger in the car, like the driver, is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and may challenge the stop's constitutionality.

The defendant was a passenger in a vehicle that had been pulled over without reason to believe that it was being operated unlawfully, that is, without probable cause or reasonable suspicion to make the stop. A search of the defendant revealed his possession of drug paraphernalia. The defendant moved to suppress, but the California Supreme Court held that suppression was unwarranted because no additional circumstances indicated to a reasonable passenger that he was the subject of the police investigation.

Reversing, the Supreme Court noted that the relevant inquiry was whether a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter. Here, Brendlin would not have felt free to terminate the encounter, because any reasonable passenger would have understood the officers to be exercising control to the point where no one in the car was free to depart without police permission. The Supreme Court rejected the reasoning that the police only intended to investigate the driver of the vehicle, not the passenger, noting that for Fourth Amendment analysis, subjective intent of the police is irrelevant; the relevant objective inquiry was the understanding of a reasonable passenger.