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Car passengers win constitutional shield

WASHINGTON – The Constitution protects car passengers as well as drivers from illegal search and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a case arising out of a late-night stop in California, the court agreed that passengers enjoy the same constitutional guarantees as drivers. When a car is stopped, both driver and passenger are in police hands and therefore can’t be searched without due cause, the court ruled.

The ruling marks the first time the court has ruled definitively that a police stop affects drivers and passengers alike.

The unanimous ruling by a largely conservative court was a rare moment of good fortune for Bruce Brendlin, a drug user who has spent years cycling through jails and prisons.

Elizabeth Campbell, Brendlin’s attorney, cautioned, though, that relatively few other passengers may prevail in court as a direct result of the ruling Monday. First, the traffic stop itself would have to be deemed illegal. A Philadelphia-based appellate court noted last year that “rarely” happens.

The case arose from Brendlin’s arrest made early in the morning of Nov. 27, 2001.

A Sutter County deputy sheriff pulled over a Buick Regal with expired registration tags. The deputy subsequently determined the car had temporary tags.

The deputy recognized passenger Brendlin as a parole violator. Deputies searched him, finding a syringe cap in his clothing and material for making methamphetamine in the car.

California officials subsequently conceded that the deputy initially had no reasonable basis for suspecting wrongdoing by Brendlin, since the car was being operated legally. Brendlin argued that the evidence should be thrown out because his Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

California officials argued that the Fourth Amendment didn’t apply, since Brendlin was free to walk away from the police encounter. The Supreme Court didn’t buy the argument.


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