On September 20, 2021, the Minnesota Court of Appeals passed down its ruling on the case of State v. Robison. A case in which the passenger—Robinson—was successful in suppressing evidence discovered after officers removed both the driver and Robison during a routine traffic stop for speeding and began ransacking the vehicle without appropriate justification. The Court, in upholding the suppression order, explained that while there are circumstances in which officers may search a vehicle when the driver has been stopped for speeding, there must be “reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity to expand the scope of the traffic stop” beyond the initial purpose of addressing the speeding infraction. In reaching its decision, the Court further expounded that while passengers do not generally have the standing to challenge the search of a vehicle, they do have an interest in a vehicle being stopped. Thus, it is prudent to understand what rights passengers of stopped vehicles do and do not have.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that every citizen shall enjoy the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” This right against unreasonable seizures applies directly to both the driver and passengers in stopped vehicles. When you find yourself stopped, regardless of whether you are the driver or passenger, there are several things to keep in mind.
Firstly, if the vehicle is stopped due to a driving infraction, you, as the passenger, are seized and are therefore protected by the Constitution. This means that while officers have the right to briefly prevent you from leaving, they do not have the right to search you without some suspicion that an additional crime has been committed. You always have the right to ask if you are free to leave. While officers have the authority to keep you in the area while they investigate the driving infraction, it is entirely possible that you could be allowed to leave.
Secondly, you are not required to answer any questions that officers ask. While being respectful and cooperative with law enforcement is always a good idea, you cannot be forced to answer any questions, including about your identification. Moreover, your refusal to answer cannot be used by law enforcement to justify searching you (this right to refuse identification does not exist for the driver of a vehicle). When a driver has violated a traffic law, you have not done anything wrong. As a result, while officers are free to ask you questions, you are equally as free to remain silent. Absent evidence of crime, you are merely a bystander during the traffic stop.
Thirdly, while it is inevitable to feel anxious when you are involved in a traffic stop, the best thing you can do is stay calm. Over-anxiousness may lead officers to believe that you have something to hide. While this alone does not allow them to remove to search you, remaining calm will expedite the encounter. Equally important is to keep your hands visible at all times and refrain from as much movement as possible. Officer safety is a paramount concern during any interaction with citizens. When passengers are reaching around in vehicles or moving significantly, officers will likely have the ability to conduct a search of your person and belongings without question as it creates suspicion that you are attempting to conceal evidence or retrieve a weapon.
Lastly, if officers have justification for removing the driver of a vehicle, you can and likely will be removed as well. The United States Supreme Court has articulated that if a driver is suspected of a crime beyond the initial traffic infraction, both the driver and any passengers may be removed. Depending on the suspected crime, once removed, officers could have the right to search the vehicle and your belongings. If they find evidence of a crime, this right to search will extend to a search of your person as well.
Ultimately, even if you believe that you are being subjected to an unjustified search during a traffic stop, your best course of action is to allow the search to proceed and then consult an attorney who can ensure that your interests are both respected and protected. Even if a search is conducted, it is not a guarantee that items discovered can be admitted as evidence against in you court. A good defense attorney will recognize an unconstitutional search and be able to have the evidence suppressed from court proceedings. Call our office today to learn more.