Monday, February 3, 2014

State Attorney's Message: Search and Seizure of Motor Vehicle Passengers

By Mark A. Ober

Under the United States Constitution, the Fourth Amendment guarantees “(t)he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  The Florida Constitution provides that this right must be “construed in conformity with the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.” Fla. Const. Art. I, §12. When a vehicle stop results in a passenger being charged with a crime, the legality of the detention or search of the passenger may become an issue in the case.  

Previously, Florida law indicated that a law enforcement officer could not lawfully command a passenger of a vehicle to remain in a vehicle during a traffic stop. Faulkner v. State, 834 So. 2d 400 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2003). Subsequent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have held that when a law enforcement officer stops a motor vehicle based on a traffic stop, the driver and all passengers are seized for Fourth Amendment purposes. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007). The Supreme Court has held that all occupants of a vehicle are seized when law enforcement stops the vehicle, law enforcement may require passengers to remain at the scene of the traffic stop, and the temporary seizure of the driver and passengers continues and remains reasonable for the duration of the stop. See Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007); Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009).

In Brendlin v. California, the court held that the passenger of a vehicle that was seized during a traffic stop was entitled to challenge the legality of the stop because “no reasonable person in his position … would have believed himself free to terminate the encounter,” Brendlin, 551 at 257, and the “stop necessarily curtail[ed] the travel a passenger ha[d] chosen as much as it halt[ed] the driver.” Id. In Arizona v. Johnson, the court held that an officer’s pat-down search of the defendant, who was a passenger during a traffic stop, was lawful. Arizona, 555, U.S. 323. Although the police did not have a reason to suspect the car’s passenger of criminal activity at the time of the traffic stop, facts arose during the stop that provided the police with reasonable suspicion for a pat-down search of the passenger. Id. The court relied upon the precedent set by Brendlin, as well as Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977), and Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997). These rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have extended the same constitutional protections to the passenger of a detained vehicle as are given to the driver, while also allowing law enforcement to develop reasonable suspicion to conduct further searches.

As your state attorney, I will always seek to keep the people of our community safe while respecting the safeguards put in place by the Constitution.