Police officers will no longer be able to search the passenger of a vehicle during a traffic stop based solely on the driver’s consent for the officer to search the vehicle after a recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling.
Officers will need to have consent of the passenger or meet other legal requirements to be able to search the passenger or his property, according to the ruling.
“I don’t want to overstate [the ruling’s] impact [on civil liberties in Michigan],” Michigan-based lawyer Mike Faraone said in an email. Faraone was the lawyer for the defendant in the case that led to the ruling.
“But at a time when our privacy rights are taking a beating, with aspects of the Patriot Act, the growing national security state, secret FISA courts, spying on citizens through cell phones, possibly spying on political opponents etc., it’s always nice when the judiciary pushes back a little on that,” Faraone said. “The police have all kinds of powers and abilities, that is not a problem.”
Faraone defended Larry Mead, a man who was charged with possession of methamphetamines after a vehicle he was a passenger in was stopped by police. The driver was pulled over for an expired license plate and officers asked to search the vehicle because they noticed Mead acting suspicious by clutching his backpack.
The driver gave the officers permission to search the the vehicle and asked Mead to step out. After exiting the vehicle, Mead gave the officers permission to frisk him for narcotics and weapons, but he left the backpack in the vehicle. Without asking for further permission, officers searched Mead’s backpack and found five prescription pills, 9.8 grams of marijuana and 4.03 grams of methamphetamine.
Mead had never given express consent to search the backpack.
A circuit court sentenced Mead to 2 to 10 years in prison despite his argument that the search of his backpack was illegal. An appeals court affirmed the ruling, and then the Michigan Supreme Court took up the case.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned the previous decision and decided that the search violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because “a passenger’s personal property is not subsumed by the vehicle that carries it.”
Although a passenger would not necessarily have a reasonable expectation of privacy in someone else’s car, the court ruled that he or she may have a reasonable expectation of privacy for something inside someone else’s car. Because a backpack is used to transport personal items, the court ruled that the defendant would have a reasonable expectation of privacy for items in his backpack and that the driver did not have the authority to authorize a search of the backpack. Therefore, the search violated Mead’s Fourth Amendment rights and was illegal.
When asked if the ruling will make it more difficult for an officer to perform his or her duties, Faraone said, “The Fourth Amendment does that.”
“If giving the police discretion to search whatever they want whenever they want was a concern of our Founders, they would not have enacted the Fourth Amendment,” Faraone said. “Police are necessary. I have friends who are police or retired police. But police are part of the government, and the constitution limits government power. Conservatives as well as liberals should be concerned with giving the government too much power.”