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Departments : Point of Law

Seizing and Searching Passengers

Passengers' rights during vehicle stops often differ from those of drivers.

September 01, 2007  |  by Devallis Rutledge - Also by this author

Arresting Passengers for Unclaimed Contraband

Often, several people are in a stopped vehicle where drugs, illegal weapons, or other incriminating evidence is found under the seats, in the glove compartment, or in other common-access areas. If no one admits to possession of the items, can the driver and passengers be arrested based on their shared dominion and control? The court answered this question in the affirmative in Maryland v. Pringle.

Joseph Jermaine Pringle was the front passenger in a car stopped for speeding. During a consent search, the officer found cocaine under the backseat armrest and a roll of cash in the glove compartment. The driver, the rear seat passenger, and Pringle all denied knowledge or possession, so the officer arrested all three. After waiving Miranda and admitting possession, Pringle moved to suppress his statement on grounds of unlawful arrest. Maryland state courts granted his motion, but the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed:

"We think it an entirely reasonable inference from these facts that any or all three of the occupants had knowledge of, and exercised dominion and control over, the cocaine. It was reasonable for the officer to infer a common enterprise among the three men. We hold that the officer had probable cause to believe that Pringle had committed the crime of possession of a controlled substance." (Maryland v. Pringle)

Search Incident to Passenger's Arrest

Upon lawful arrest of the driver, the passenger compartment of the vehicle is subject to "contemporaneous" search (meaning "here and now"). The scope of search includes all places, compartments, and containers within the passenger compartment, but not the trunk. (Thornton v. U.S.)

In New York v. Belton, the Supreme Court held that even if it is a passenger, rather than the driver of the vehicle who is arrested, a prompt search of the contents of the passenger compartment may also be made. Of course, the clothing and any containers carried by the arrestee may also be searched incident to his or her lawful arrest. (U.S. v. Robinson)

Search Based on Probable Cause

When an officer makes a lawful vehicle stop and has PC to suspect something seizable somewhere in the vehicle, the Fourth Amendment allows an immediate or postponed search of any part of the vehicle and its contents that might conceal the object of the search. (U.S. v. Ross) The court has ruled that this is true, even if the item searched appears to be the property of an unsuspicious passenger. (Wyoming v. Houghton, upholding the search of a female passenger's purse to find the male driver's drugs. And note that in Rakas v. Illinois, the court held that passengers will not normally have "standing" to challenge the search of another's car.)

Passengers' Rights Cheat Sheet 

  • All passengers in private vehicles are detained at a stop.
  • Passengers may be ordered out and kept from leaving.
  • Passengers may be arrestable for joint possession of contraband.
  • Passengers' property and the vehicle may be searched incident to their arrest (passenger compartment), or with PC (any hiding place).

Devallis Rutledge, a former police officer and veteran prosecutor, currently serves as Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County District Attorney. His latest book is "Criminal Investigations and Evidence."


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