WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A passenger in a car pulled over for a traffic violation can challenge the stop for violating the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday.
The justices held that the California Supreme Court was wrong in ruling that any constitutional violations when a police officer illegally stops a vehicle may be challenged only by the driver.
The high court's opinion written by Justice David Souter said the passenger in such cases can be considered "seized," basically unable to leave the scene when the police make the traffic stop, and can also challenge the stop.
Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union applauded the ruling for recognizing that the average passenger does not feel free to leave when police pull over a car.
"Today's decision means that the police will no longer receive a free pass to violate the Constitution when they stop a car and its passengers without reason to believe that anyone in the car has violated the law," he said.
The ruling involved a traffic stop by a sheriff's deputy in 2001 in Yuba City, California.
The passenger in the car, Bruce Brendlin, was wanted for a parole violation and was arrested. A search turned up drug paraphernalia in the car.
Brendlin tried to get the drug evidence thrown out, arguing it was illegally seized and the stop was unlawful.
The high court's ruling was a defeat for California officials, who had argued that passengers like Brendlin in stopped vehicles are free to leave.
Souter said any reasonable passenger would understand the police officers would not let people depart without permission or move around in a way that might impede an investigation.
He said the Supreme Court's conclusion is in line with all of the federal appeals courts and nearly every state court to rule on the issue.