Brendin v California

A Supreme Court Case in California has some eyebrows being raised.  Its Brendin v California (06-8120) and involves a search and seizure case, and a passenger's right to walk away during a traffic stop.  The California Supreme Court made this new ruling on June 18th, 2007 which allows passengers to challenge a traffic stop's constitutionality.

The case actually started on November 27, 2001 in Yuba City, California when an officer noticed a vehicle with expired tags on it.  The vehicle had a temporary registration in the window, but the police officer was unable to read it, and a traffic stop followed.

As the officer spoke to the driver, he recognized the passenger as Bruce Brendlin, who he believed had a warrant for a parole violation. The officer went  back to his patrol vehicle and verified that Brendin did in fact have an arrest warrant, ordered him out of the vehicle and arrested him for his warrant.

When the officer searched the car and Brendlin himself,  more than 12 grams of marijuana and materials used to manufacture methamphetamine were recovered.  He was charged with the crimes.

Once the case made it to trial, Brendlin's attorney filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence gained through the searches, invoking the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of "unreasonable searches and seizures."  The original trial court denied the motion, finding that only the driver had been detained until Brokenbrough discovered Brendlin was in fact a parolee at large.  The court said that Brendlin lacked the standing to suppress the evidence seized during the search; therefore, his motion was denied and Brendlin pleaded guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine.  He was sentenced to four years in prison.

However, in January 2004, California's 3rd District Court of Appeals reversed the original trial court's decision.  In a majority opinion, Judge Arthur Scotland wrote, "A common sense application of Fourth Amendment principles leads to the conclusion that a traffic stop constitutes at least a momentary seizure of everyone in the car." He continued, "By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the passenger is free to go from the point at which the driver yields to the officer's show of authority."  Judge Scotland noted that because the police officer "had at most a hunch" that the driver was driving an unregistered vehicle, "he acted unreasonably and unlawfully" in making the initial stop.

However, Judge Corrigan said through a previous case (Mendenhall) dictates that passengers must be considered seized when a car is stopped by police. She pointed to a California case, County of Sacramento v. Lewis, arguing that any traffic stop renders a passenger or passengers seized: "When a police officer effects a traffic stop, a passenger's freedom of movement has been restrained by the intentional act of a government agent."

The California court circumvented Mendenhall by interpreting it narrowly. Citing California v. Hodari, Judge Marvin Baxter wrote that seizure entails "an actual taking into custody, whether by the application of physical force or by submission to the assertion of authority."  Under this definition, Brendlin had not been detained during the original stop, but rather he was only seized when the officer arrested him for violating parole.  The fact that the initial traffic stop was unlawful does not provide Brendlin legal cover under the exclusionary rule, since it was only the driver that was officially seized at that time.  Source:

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