One issue that comes up frequently in criminal defense practice is what, if any, grounds a passenger has to complain either about a police officer’s stop or search of a vehicle he or she is riding in or about the search of items within that vehicle.  What follows is a brief rundown of some of the controlling cases, although I do not pretend that it comes close to addressing all of the issues that might be raised in these circumstances.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  In a typical traffic stop case, an officer stops a vehicle on suspicion that the driver is in some way violating the traffic laws.   When a traffic stop is based on reasonable articulable suspicion of a violation of law, it is deemed to be “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.  Once the vehicle is stopped, in order to remain reasonable, the seizure or any ensuing search must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”   Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 (1968).   If the officer’s encounter with the driver results in continued reasonable suspicion, either of the original suspected offense or of a new suspected offense (say, drunk driving suspicion emerges from a speeding stop), the continuing seizure or search related to confirming or dispelling the suspicion remains reasonable.  Once all reasonable articulable suspicions have either been confirmed or dispelled, however, it is unreasonable for the officer to prolong the detention further.

When a vehicle is stopped, the passengers are stopped or “seized” along with the driver.  Because of this, passengers have “standing,” or grounds to complain, that the traffic stop was not justified in the first place or was unreasonably prolonged so as to have become unreasonable. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007).  The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that items found during an unreasonable search or seizure are to be suppressed (kept out of evidence) as to those who have “standing,” if the items that are found are the “tainted fruits” of the unreasonable search and seizure. Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963), Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961).  Therefore, if the officer has written a speeding ticket and has no reasonable suspicion of any additional violation of law, but wants to keep poking around to see what he or she might find, a passenger in the vehicle has the same grounds as the driver to complain about whatever evidence the officer finds during this unreasonably prolonged detention.

Once an officer has legitimately stopped a vehicle, the officer may reasonably order the passengers to get out.   Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997).    An officer may pat a passenger down for weapons if the officer has reason to believe the passenger might be armed and dangerous.  Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009).  The officer may also ask the passengers any questions he or she chooses to ask during this time, as long as the questioning does not unreasonably extend the duration of the stop.  Id.  The officer is allowed to ask the driver for identification and to take the time required to determine the driver’s license status.   See State v. Huether, 2000 ME 59, 748 A.2d  993.  The officer may also ask passengers to identify themselves, but if the officer does not have reasonable articulable suspicion as to the passengers, the officer may not prolong the detention to determine their identities.  United States v. Henderson, 463 F.3d 27, (1st. Cir. 2006).  The Supreme Court has decided that the seizure involved in a traffic stop is not rendered unreasonable if the police run a drug-sniffing dog around the outside of a vehicle, as long as doing so does not prolong the stop.  See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005).  And if the dog alerts that it has located drugs in the vehicle, that alert gives rise to probable cause that justifies a further detention of the vehicle and its occupants.  Id.

If the officer develops probable cause to believe there is contraband or other evidence of a crime in the vehicle, the officer may search the entire vehicle and the contents, including any containers that are capable of containing the target of the search.   United States v. Ross, 456 US. 798 (1982).  If the officer’s continuing detention of the vehicle’s occupants is reasonable but the officer searches the vehicle without probable cause or the consent of the owner (for instance, while waiting for information on a driver’s license status, or while a second officer puts the driver through OUI field sobriety tests) the passengers will have no standing to complain about any items that are seized from the vehicle unless they have an ownership interest in the vehicle itself or any items such as a purse, backpack, jacket, etc., within which the contraband items are located.  Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978).  If, for instance, drugs are found scattered openly throughout a vehicle, the passengers will have no standing to complain that the search of the vehicle was without probable cause and without the consent of the vehicle’s owner.   Again, however, passengers do have standing to complain if the officer unreasonably detained them so the officer could conduct a fishing expedition.   If a passenger has an ownership interest in the vehicle or in an item within which contraband is found, the passenger may assert his or her ownership interest during a motion to suppress, without having to worry that the claim of ownership will be used against him or her as direct evidence at trial.  The assertion of such an interest during a hearing on a motion to suppress, based on a Fourth Amendment violation, is not admissible as direct evidence against the person. Simmons v. United States, 390 U.S. 377 (1968).  It is, however, admissible as impeachment evidence if the person later testifies at trial that he or she had no ownership interest in the item.


Vehicle Passengers, Stops and Searches.  This post does not constitute legal advice.  It is for informational purposes only.   Reading this material does not create an attorney client-relationship between the reader and the author.