The United States Supreme Court decided another case impacting law enforcement operations on June 18th. i The case concerns whether a passenger in a vehicle which has been unlawfully stopped can challenge the basis of the stop when evidence is discovered relative to the passenger. In other words, does the passenger have an expectation in a vehicle they have been riding in, such that they can challenge the stop?

Bruce Brendlin was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Karen Simeroth when the vehicle was stopped at 1:40 in the morning on November 27, 2001. Deputy Brokenbrough had observed Simeroth’s 1993 Buick with expired tags. Prior to the stop he had run the vehicle registration and determined that an application for registration was in progress and the vehicle has a temporary tag indicating that the temporary registration expired at the end of November. Notwithstanding all indications that this vehicle was registered, Deputy Brokenbrough decided to stop the vehicle because he could not determine if the temporary tag matched the vehicle. It was subsequently determined that this stop was bad due to the evidence that the vehicle did, in fact, meet the registration requirements.

Upon stopping and approaching the vehicle, Deputy Brokenbrough observed a passenger that he knew to be one of the Brendlin brothers. He was also aware that one of the Brendlins, either Scott or Bruce, had skipped out on his parole. The officer asked Brendlin his name, at which time the subject lied and stated his name was Bruce Brown. While at the vehicle, Deputy Brokenbrough observed receptacles in the vehicle that contained substances used for the manufacture of methamphetamine. Brokenbrough returned to his police vehicle and verified that Bruce Brendlin was a parole violator and had a no-bail warrant. At one point, while waiting, Brendlin opened the door of the Buick but then closed it again. Brokenbrough then called for back-up and took Brendlin out at gunpoint, arresting him for the parole violation warrant.

Upon a search incident to arrest the officer found the cap from a syringe in Brendlin’s pocket, two syringes in the car, marijuana and methamphetamine on Simeroth. Materials used for the manufacture of methamphetamine were found in the backseat. When the trial court refused to suppress the evidence as to Brendlin, he pled guilty to methamphetamine manufacturing charges. His argument for suppression had been that the stop of the vehicle was illegal, therefore he was unlawfully seized and the evidence found as a result of the bad stop and seizure was the fruit of the poisonous tree. The trial court, in refusing to suppress the evidence found that Brendlin, as a passenger, had been free to leave at any point during the stop and this had not been seized until after the officer recognized him as a parole violator and placed him under arrest. The Court of Appeal for California reversed the trial court and concluded that the evidence should have been suppressed. This led to an appeal in the California Supreme Court, which sided with the trial court and held that the evidence was good. Brendlin is now appealing that decision to the United States Supreme Court.

In analyzing this case, the United States Supreme Court rejected the opinion of the California Supreme Court with respect to a passenger’s seizure. The Court focused on when a seizure occurs. In doing so the court noted that a physical seizure occurs when there is a stopping of movement by a means intentionally applied while a show of authority seizure occurs when law enforcement shows authority and the subject of the seizure complies with that show of authority. The California court had concluded that although the officer in this case had showed authority in stopping the vehicle, Brendlin, as the passenger had not had an opportunity to comply since the show of authority had been directed at the driver and not at him and thus he had not been seized.

The Supreme Court reiterated that an analysis of a seizure includes whether the actions or conduct of law enforcement would lead the reasonable innocent person to believe that they were free to leave. The Court concluded that a reasonable person who was a passenger in a car that was stopped by police would not believe that they were free to leave and would believe that they must stay put. The Court cited to their previous decisions giving officers some authority over passengers to provide support for the fact that passengers are not free during a traffic stop. ii

The Court asserted: “It is also reasonable for passengers to expect that a police officer at the scene of a crime, arrest, or investigation will not let people move around in ways that could jeopardize his safety. In Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997), we held that during a lawful traffic stop an officer may order a passenger out of the car as a precautionary measure, without reasonable suspicion that the passenger poses a safety risk. Id., at 414-415; cf. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) (per curiam) (driver may be ordered out of the car as a matter of course). In fashioning this rule, we invoked our earlier statement that “‘[t]he risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.'” Wilson, supra, at 414 (quoting Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 702-703 (1981)). What we have said in these opinions probably reflects a societal expectation of “‘unquestioned [police] command'” at odds with any notion that a passenger would feel free to leave, or to terminate the personal encounter any other way, without advance permission.”

The Court concluded that the passengers in a vehicle are seized during a traffic stop and therefore can challenge the validity of the stop. Thus, Brendlin could challenge the validity of the stop which occurred here and seek the suppression of the evidence which was found. The Court then remanded the case back to the California courts to determine whether the evidence should be suppressed or allowed in on some other basis.

At first glance this may appear to be a bad case for law enforcement; however, it is actually a good case for law enforcement. If the California prosecution had prevailed in this case, law enforcement would have had no authority over passengers during lawful car stops. Such a rule would have placed law enforcement at a significant disadvantage in officer safety. Instead, the United States Supreme Court decided in favor of a defendant’s right to challenge a seizure in a minor drug case, and in doing so, upheld the authority of law enforcement over passengers in all traffic stops.


i  Brendlin v. California, 2007 U.S. LEXIS 7897 (June 18, 2007).
ii See, Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 407 (1997) (allowing officers to order passengers from any lawfully stopped vehicle during a traffic stop for officer safety).

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