Searching Passengers and Their Belongings

As long as the car stop is valid, police have a right to search occupants as well as drivers.

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Once they have probable cause to search a car, the police don’t have to worry about whether the objects they are searching belong to the driver or the passengers. The officers have the right to search any object that might be capable of concealing whatever the police are searching for (Wyoming v. Houghton, U.S. Sup. Ct. 1999). If the search turns up incriminating evidence (such as drugs or loot from a crime), the police can arrest the driver and the passengers (Maryland v. Pringle, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2003).

Example: Officer Colombo pulls a car over for making an illegal left turn. Inside the car are four teenagers. The officer notices a hypodermic syringe and traces of drugs in the driver’s shirt pocket. The officer orders all the passengers out of the car, frisks them, and begins to search the car looking for drugs. The officer picks up a purse from the back seat, which one of the occupants identifies as hers. Officer Colombo opens the purse, finds drugs inside, and places the purse’s owner under arrest. The arrest and drug seizure were valid. Because Officer Colombo had the right to search the car, the officer also had the right to search items belonging to any passengers, as long as the item could reasonably contain drugs.

Example: Officer Colombo pulls a car over for making an illegal left turn. Inside the car are four teenagers. The officer notices an illegal automatic weapon sticking out under the front passenger seat. Officer Colombo orders all the passengers out of the car, frisks them, and begins to search the car looking for other evidence of weapons. The officer picks up a wallet from the back seat, which one of the occupants identifies as his. Officer Colombo carefully searches the wallet and finds drugs inside. He places the wallet’s owner under arrest. This seizure and arrest for drug possession are probably not valid. Because Officer Colombo had the right to search the car, the officer also had the right to search property belonging to its passengers if that property could reasonably contain the objects the police are searching for (in this case, weapons). Because no weapon could be concealed in the wallet, the search of the wallet was arguably illegal and the arrest based on it invalid.

This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.

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