Legal Update – Fourth Amendment


As a passenger in a car stopped by police, you probably wouldn’t feel free to simply walk away. In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that you aren’t expected to. Brendlin v. California asked the Court to decide whether a passenger in a car stopped by police should be considered “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which bans “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Under the Court’s prior decisions interpreting the Fourth Amendment, if you are seized illegally by government officials, any resulting evidence cannot be used against you at trial. Courts have long recognized that the driver of a stopped car has been “seized” and therefore can challenge the constitutionality of both the stop and the government’s use of any resulting evidence. Before Brendlin, courts disagreed about whether passengers had this same right.

The Supreme Court held that Brendlin, a passenger, could challenge the constitutionality of a traffic stop. In reaching this result, the Court applied its test for identifying Fourth Amendment seizures - would a reasonable person in the same position feel free to leave? In ruling that passengers in stopped cars are likely going to think that they can’t leave, the Court noted: “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. A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver.”

If you think your rights under the Fourth Amendment have been violated, or if you are interested in learning more about your rights as a passenger, talk to your lawyer about your options.