Passenger Rights during a Traffic Stop

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Do Passengers Have Rights during a Traffic Stop?

Yes. While the rights of the driver have been well established, the rights of passengers during traffic stops have been considerably less clear. In 2007, in the case of Brendlin v. California, the Supreme Court definitely said that during a traffic stop, passengers are considered “seized” for the purposes of the 4th Amendment, and therefore have standing and the ability to challenge the constitutionality of a stop and subsequent search.

However, this also means police officers have the right to command passengers out of the car, back into the car, and to perform a Terry search for weapons.

What Rights Do Passengers Have?

As a general matter then, this precedent establishes that the rights passengers have during a traffic stop are essentially have the same rights as the driver, which may have not been true in practice in the past. This includes:

However, it is worth noting that by virtue of some traffic stops, passengers may arguably have more, additional rights.

  1. Refusal Rights – For example, if an officer pulls a driver over on suspicion of DUI, during the initial stop, any passengers cannot reasonably be suspected of intoxication simply by association. Therefore, passengers may refuse to not only answer questions but also to submit to testing of any kind. In states where refusing such tests result in an automatic suspension for drivers, such suspensions could not logically apply to passengers.
  2. Unique Right to Challenge the Reasonableness of a Detention – Passengers are in a unique position to object to the reasonableness of the length of a detention. As a general matter, police may detain someone for a reasonable amount of time without formally arresting them in order for police to conduct police business. Using the DUI example above, while a driver may not be able to object as easily to being detained for a longer period of time before a formal arrest is made, passengers may potentially be able to object to this type of detention as not only suspicionless, but incredibly unreasonable, and that regardless of having been subject to the initial “seizure,” they now should be free to go.

It is important to note that this right is certainly not absolute, and any request about whether a passenger is free to go should be made politely, as officer safety and their ability to control a suspected crime is paramount.

Should I Seek Legal Advice?

If you were a passenger in a vehicle that was subject to a search, you should seek the advice of an attorney immediately. A criminal defense attorney in your area can help secure your rights in the event that you or anyone you were with in a car faces criminal charges.

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Last Modified: 04-14-2014 03:39 PM PDT

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