Fourth Amendment Rights of Passengers During Police Stops

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The State of Ohio appealed a judgment made by the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in the case of a man who was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, improperly handling firearms inside a motor vehicle, and tampering with evidence. At the time of the arrest, the defendant-appellee was a passenger in a vehicle that was parked on the side of the road.

According to court documents, a police officer noticed the vehicle parked on the side of the road with occupants inside. Although there was no indication of unlawful activity, the officer approached the vehicle to ask the occupants if everything with alright. The officer proceeded to ask the occupants for their identification, which he took back to his cruiser to run a warrants check. This took approximately five to ten minutes. When the officer returned, he asked the driver if he had anything on him or in the car.

According to the man in the driver’s seat, the officer repeatedly asked him if he could conduct a search of the vehicle, to which he eventually responded, “I don’t care.” According to the officer, the driver had leaned over and whispered that there was a gun in the trunk, placed there by the defendant-appellee. Upon searching the trunk, police found the gun.

The defendant-appellee filed a motion to suppress the evidence, saying it was obtained after an unlawful seizure. The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas granted the motion. The state appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in granting the motion in part because “the appellee was not seized when he gave his identification information to the officer” (the five to ten minute period during which the occupants of the vehicle were waiting while the officer ran a warrants check with their IDs).

What qualifies as a seizure?

This case dealt heavily with the “seizure” aspect of the Fourth Amendment and the corresponding Article 1, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against warrantless searches and seizures, but what qualifies as a seizure? According to the Tenth District Court of Appeals, not every interaction between police and citizens constitutes a seizure of person. Interactions between police and citizens may only fit the category of “seizure” if the officer restrained the liberty of that citizen through physical force or another display of authority.

The U.S. Supreme Court has identified three types of police-on-citizen interactions:

  1. Consensual encounters (no justification necessary)
  2. Brief detentions or investigatory stops (requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity)
  3. Criminal arrests (requires probable cause)

According to the Franklin County Court, the interaction in this case began as a consensual encounter, but escalated to a scenario that qualified as a seizure as soon as the officer asked for the subjects’ ID cards to run a warrant check. They were effectively “seized” because they were under the impression they could not leave until the officer returned from his cruiser with their IDs. Any physical evidence obtained from a vehicle because of an unlawful detention must legally be suppressed and not allowed as evidence in the case.

What rights do passengers have in traffic stops?

The Supreme Court of Ohio has ruled in the past that passengers and drivers have equal standing under the Fourth Amendment when it comes to stops and detentions because the passenger(s) and the driver are “equally seized” and therefore the freedoms of both are affected. For example, a police officer who stops a driver also consequently detains any passengers in that vehicle.

The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant the motion to suppress evidence, confirming that the evidence obtained at the stop was the fruit of an unlawful seizure.

To read the entire decision, visit State v. Tabler, 2015-Ohio-2651.