Yes. When the police conduct a traffic stop on the vehicle in which you are a passenger you do have rights. After police make a stop on a vehicle, the driver as well as their passengers have been “seized” as provided under the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
As a result, the passenger has the same standing as a driver to challenge the legality of the stop, searches and any items seized by law enforcement. However, there may be situations in which the police may detain and search a passenger during a traffic stop as well as ordering the passenger out of the car or to remain in the vehicle. For officer safety, police can frequently use a “terry search” for weapons.
Generally, passengers enjoy the same rights as the driver during a traffic stop. This includes:
- The right to be free from unreasonable or illegal searches by law enforcement.
- The right to remain silent and not answer questions by the police.
- The right to challenge the legality of the stop in court.
- The right to challenge the legality of any search after the stop in court.
Frequently, drivers are considered to have knowledge or responsibility for what is in the vehicle they are operating. For example, a driver may be held responsible for any illegal substances or contraband found in the backseat by police.
Passengers, on the other hand, are usually not held to have the same knowledge or responsibility of such items unless they are the owner of the vehicle, are in arm’s reach of the item, or some other indication that the item was theirs. Depending on the type of stop and subsequent investigation, the passenger may have additional rights.
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If a vehicle is stopped for suspicion of DUI, the passenger may refuse any testing by police to determine their intoxication level. The driver, however, may not be able to refuse depending on the state.
Because the potential crime being investigated by police is whether the driver was impaired while driving, the passenger’s intoxication is irrelevant to such an investigation. Thus, a passenger should be able to refuse any alcohol or drug field tests without being subjected to any license suspension or arrest for refusing.
Generally, police may detain or prevent someone from leaving for the purpose of investigating a crime or for officer safety. But this detention must be reasonable. There are a lot of factors in determining whether a detention is reasonable and each situation is unique.
Because passengers are frequently not the subject of a traffic stop investigation, their detention for an unreasonable amount of time may be illegal and thus they can challenge that duration in court.
It is worth noting that for your safety and others around you that you follow these simple steps when interacting with law enforcement:
- Always be polite and respectful with police even if they are not.
- Never interfere with a search by police or an arrest of someone else.
- Do not resist an arrest, even if you believe it to be illegal.
- Do not run away or make sudden movements when police have ordered you to stay or keep your hands visible.
- Do not answer any questions or make any statements to police if you do not wish to do so. You have the right to remain silent and they may be able to use your answers and statements against you later in court.
- Ask the officer if you can leave and if permitted, do so calmly.
Police are given a lot of authority to control a potentially dangerous or criminal situation. Your appropriate behavior can keep you safe and put you in a better position to challenge any illegal police activity later in court.
If you face criminal charges after a traffic stop in which you were a passenger, a criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights and defend you in court. If you believe your rights were violated or you were wrongfully subjected to a search, contact an attorney to determine what remedies are available to you.