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Supreme Court Overturns Judge's Decision; Fourth Amendment Rights Broken

  1. Powder_Reality
    Sutter Judge Upheld
    Sat, 01 Jul 2006
    Rob Young
    Appeal-Democrat

    The state Supreme Court has upheld a decision by Sutter County Judge Chris Chandler in the case of a Yuba City man arrested in 2001 for methamphetamine offenses.

    Chandler refused to suppress evidence against Bruce E. Brendlin and sentenced him to four years in prison.

    Sutter County Assistant District Attorney Fred Schroeder said Friday that Brendlin was released long ago after serving about half the sentence.

    Brendlin was a passenger in a car pulled over by a Sutter County Sheriff's Department Deputy Robert Brokenbrough, who was checking the validity of a registration permit taped to the back window.

    According to court records, Brokenbrough suspected Brendlin was a wanted parolee and saw drug paraphernalia in the car. Brendlin remained in the car while Brokenbrough returned to his patrol car.

    Brokenbrough asked for backup, then ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint. Brendlin ended up pleading guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine but appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal on the grounds that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

    The appellate justices ruled in Brendlin's favor, saying that Brokenbrough stopped the car based only on a hunch and that Brendlin was improperly detained. The driver also was arrested on methamphetamine charges.

    The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court decision on a 4-3 vote. Brokenbrough did not detain Brendlin based on the traffic stop but on the basis of his suspicion that Brendlin was a parolee at large, the justices ruled.

    "When a peace officer directs the driver of a vehicle to pull over for a traffic stop but, in effecting the stop, gives no indication that the passenger of the vehicle is the focus of the officer's investigation or show of authority, is the passenger subjected to a 'seizure' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment? This is a question that has divided courts inside and outside this state," the Supreme Court said.

Comments

  1. Powder_Reality
    Here's a more detailed article on the subject. It's from the newspaper Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

    Supreme Court Approves Search of Passenger in Stopped Vehicle
    Fri, 30 Jun 2006
    Tina Bay, Staff Writer
    Metropolitan News-Enterprise

    Passengers of a vehicle pulled over in a police traffic stop are not "seized" for Fourth Amendment purposes, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

    Reversing a Court of Appeal holding that traffic stops necessarily result in the detention of both drivers and passengers, the high court in a 4-3 decision affirmed Bruce Brendlin's conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine.

    Brendlin was the passenger of a Buick that Sutter County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Charles Brokenbrough stopped in 2001 on the basis of expired registration tabs. Although he learned that there was a pending application for the registration's renewal, Brokenbrough directed the driver to pull over in order to investigate the validity of the temporary operating permit taped to the car's rear window.

    Testimony at a suppression hearing indicated that the deputy approached the car's driver side and asked for the driver's license, and upon recognizing Brendlin as a possible parolee at large and verifying that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint and arrested him for parole violation. During a search incident to the arrest, Brokenbrough found an orange syringe cap on Brendlin, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia on the driver and in the back seat of the car.

    Motion to Suppress

    Brendlin moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that Brokenbrough's detention of the Buick and its driver constituted an illegal seizure of his person that tainted all of the subsequently discovered evidence.

    In denying the motion to suppress, Sutter Superior Court Judge Christopher R. Chandler held that Brendlin was seized not at the point of the traffic stop but rather when Brokenbrough commanded out of the car and placed him under arrest. Until then, Chandler reasoned, "[Brendlin] was free to leave...if he wanted to."

    The Court of Appeal found that Chandler erred in not suppressing the evidence Brokenbrough seized from Brendlin and the Buick, reasoning that Brendlin was illegally detained as a result of the traffic stop and the stop itself was unlawful.

    Baxter Opinion

    But Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for the high court, said the Court of Appeal incorrectly based its ruling on the fact that a traffic stop curtails a passenger's freedom of movement.

    "A police detention of an orderly pushing a wheelchair-bound individual or a detention of a parent pushing a child in a stroller may well incidentally curtail the freedom of action of the passengers who are dependent on those adults. ...But it is absurd to say that either passenger has thereby been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment," Baxter said.

    While it is clear that the "progress" of a passenger in a pulled-over car is "momentarily curtailed," the justice explained, it is the driver and not the passenger against whom police are asserting authority. Passengers may in most cases choose to remain in the car until it stops and to stay until police complete their investigation, but they are in reality free to leave the car at anytime unless the police say otherwise--unlike the driver who must submit to the officer's show of authority, Baxter said.

    Pointing out the distinction between being stopped "as a practical matter" and being seized as a "as a constitutional matter," the justice said that a rule equating the two "would encompass even those motorists following the vehicle subject to the traffic stop, who, by virtue of the original detention, are forced to slow down and perhaps even come to a halt in order to accommodate the vehicle's submission to police authority."

    "There is no need to torture the definition of a seizure to protect the security of passengers," he wrote.

    Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce Kennard and Ming Chin joined in the opinion.

    In a dissent, Justice Carol A. Corrigan, joined by Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos R. Moreno, criticized the majority's ruling as providing "no sound basis in reason or policy."

    Noting that eight federal circuit courts of appeal and 21 state's appellate courts have adopted the view that passengers are detained during traffic stops, Corrigan concluded that the "commonsense approach" would be to hold that passengers are seized from the time an officer pulls the car over until he tells the passengers they are free to leave or releases all occupants of the vehicle after completing the traffic stop.

    In a companion case, the justices unanimously held that police lawfully stopped a vehicle that was missing a front license plate but displayed what appeared to be a current temporary operating permit.

    The cases are People v. Brendline, 06 S.O.S. 3354, and People v. Saunders, 06 S.O.S. 3362.
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