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Traffic Stops and Control of Passengers

By Brian Batterton

In 1997, the United States Supreme Court held, in Maryland v. Wilson, that it is reasonable for officers to order passengers in a lawfully stopped automobile to exit the vehicle.i The court reasoned that there must be a balance during a traffic stop between the need of the police to maintain officer safety and the Fourth Amendment rights of passengers. The court concluded that a passenger is only minimally inconvenienced, and basically, the most significant change in the passenger’s circumstance is that they will be outside rather than inside the vehicle.

Given Maryland v. Wilson, the question has now become, “May the police require the passenger in a lawfully stopped automobile to remain inside the vehicle during a traffic stop?” The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this very question when they decided the United States v. Sanders.ii The incident began when a deputy with the Jackson County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Department conducted a lawful traffic stop based upon a traffic violation on a man named Wilson. Wilson pulled into an apartment complex that could be characterized as a “high crime” area and stopped next to a building. A passenger in Wilson’s car named Sanders exited the car. The deputy repeatedly ordered Sanders to reenter the car and Sanders eventually complied. When the deputy approached the car, he observed a pistol grip protruding from Sander’s left, front pocket. Back-up arrived and Sanders was removed from the car; a handgun was removed from his pocket.

Sanders was charged federally with unlawful possession of a firearm.iii He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the deputy violated his Fourth Amendment rights by ordering him to reenter the stopped car, thereby detaining him without reasonable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity. Sanders reasoned that if he was unlawfully detained at the traffic stop, then the recovery of the handgun was a result of the unlawful detention, and therefore, fruit of the poisonous tree. The motion to suppress was denied by the district court and Sanders appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Eighth Circuit noted that, while the United States Supreme Court has not specifically addressed this issue, they have addressed situations that offer guidance on this topic. First, as noted above, Maryland v. Wilson stands for the proposition that officers may order a passenger in a lawfully stopped vehicle to exit the vehicle during the traffic stop. The Supreme Court reasoned that “officer safety” is a “weighty interest” on a traffic stop given the number of assaults that occur on officers during traffic stops.iv The presence of passengers only increases the risk to officers further justifying the need of officer control over the situation.v

Second, in Brendlin v. California, the Supreme Court held that, when police stop a car, the passengers in the car, in addition to the driver, are seized because a reasonable passenger would not believe himself free to Specifically, the court said “a sensible person would not expect a police officer to allow people to come and go freely from the physical focal point of an investigation into faulty behavior or wrongdoing… even when the wrongdoing is only bad driving, the passenger will expect to be subject to some scrutiny, and his attempt to leave the scene would be so obviously likely to prompt an objection from the officer that no passenger would feel free to leave in the first place.”vii

Next, the court considered Michigan v. Summers, where the Supreme Court held that officers could order a person leaving a house to reenter the house and remain there while officers executed a search warrant.viii In fact, when the Supreme Court decided Maryland v. Wilson, they cited Summers and stated that “the risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.”ix

The Eighth Circuit then, in light of the above analysis, stated that the reasoning in Wilson and Summers applies equally to the facts of Sanders; therefore, the deputy did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he ordered Sanders to reenter the car.x The court also considered, in addition to the above analysis, the following: the officer was in a high crime area; it was dark; the officer was outnumber by the occupants of the stopped car; and the officer testified it was his usual practice to have all occupants remain in the vehicle for his safety. Additionally, the intrusion to Sanders during this incident was minimal. The court noted that as soon as Sanders reentered the car, the deputy approached and saw the gun. Thus, the amount of time Sanders was detained without reasonable suspicion was de minimis (so minimal it is unimportant). Once the officer saw the gun, he then had reasonable suspicion to detain Sanders.

It is also important to note that the Eighth Circuit stated that it was not deciding whether an officer may forcibly detain a passenger for the entire duration of the stop without reasonable suspicion that the passenger is or was engaged in criminal activity.xi The court did not need to decide this question because the facts of Sanders did not require it –once the officer saw the gun in Sander’s pocket, the officer then possessed reasonable suspicion to detain him.

In conclusion, the rule we can take from Sanders is that it is constitutionally reasonable for officers to order a passenger in lawfully stopped automobile to remain inside the automobile or to reenter the automobile.xii It is important to note that the rule of this case is only binding in the Eighth Circuit, although other Circuits have reached similar results.xiii Other circuits or states may reach a different conclusion.

i 519 U.S. 408 (1997)

ii No. 07-1407, 2007 U.S. App. LEXIS 29393 (8th Cir. December 20, 2007)

iii 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)

iv Wilson, 519 U.S. at 413

v Id.

vi 127 S. Ct. 2400, 2407 (2007)

vii Id.

viii 452 U.S. 692 (1981)

ix Wilson, 519 U.S. at 414 (quoting Summers, 452 U.S. at 702-703)

x Sanders at 6-7

xi Id. at 10 n. 7

xii Id. at 6-7

xiii Id. at 10 n. 7 See United States v. Williams, 419 F.3d 1029, 1034 (9th Cir.) (“We hold that HN7 under the Fourth Amendment it is reasonable for an officer to order a passenger back into an automobile . . . because the concerns for officer safety . . . and specifically the need for officers to exercise control . . . outweigh the marginal intrusion on the passenger’s liberty interest.”), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1081, 126 S. Ct. 840, 163 L. Ed. 2d 715 (2005); …United States v. Moorefield, 111 F.3d 10, 11 (3rd Cir. 1997) (holding that “police officers may constitutionally order occupants of cars to remain in the vehicle with their hands up in the air”); cf. Rogala v. District of Columbia, 333 U.S. App. D.C. 145, 161 F.3d 44, 53 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ,(involving a passenger who did not attempt to leave the scene; summarily affirming and reprinting the district court’s opinion, which held that “it follows from Maryland v. Wilson that a police officer has the power to reasonably control the situation by requiring a passenger to remain in a vehicle during a traffic stop”); see also United States v. Holt, 264 F.3d 1215, 1223 (10th Cir. 2001) (en banc) (stating in dictum that “during a routine traffic stop, an officer may . . . order the passengers to remain in the vehicle”).

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    10 months ago


    DO NOT speak to the police for ANY reason, ever. They are allowed to lie as much as they'd like and do NOT have the best interests of the public in mind. To them, everyone who is not one of their "brothers" is a criminal and fair game. The two sentences to remember when encountering a police officer are "I am going to remain silent ' and 'Am I being detained? " They will try right off the bat during a traffic stop with the question "Do you know how fasr you were going or Do you know why I pulled you over?" These are questions that can sometimes lead to an admission of guilt and it WILL be used against you. If you're driving, have your paperwork and ID ready. Do not say a single word to a police officer under any circumstances in the United States. Never consent to a search, ever. They will lie through their teeth to try to get your consent. Don't give them your keys. NEVER, EVER, let a police officer into your home. If they had a warrant, they would NOT knock. Remember your rights, no matter what those terrorists say.

  • Derrick_max50


    about 4 years ago


    I think it's good for the public to know criminal laws that way have no excuse when they break them and get arrested. Most criminals know about criminal justice better then some police officers do that's how they know how to play the system.

  • Moi_max50


    about 4 years ago


    As a civilian I agree with Rococop, However, this information is everywhere on Internet. I'd be more concerned with what's available to everyone elsewhere.

  • 1979_max50


    about 4 years ago


    I think that we as Officers can never get enough training and even though we know, it is always good to refresh and practice. That is what keeps up alive and well.
    I DO have a VERY STRONG OBJECTION to placing this article here on PL where it is open to the public. All training should be restricted to bona fide LEOs ONLY. While it isn't a big State Secret, it is usually held confidential. We do not need to tell or remedy the bad guys what our procedures are. Let's keep training articles limited to certified LEOs please.

  • Me_max50


    about 4 years ago


    Good, officers need more of these!

  • Police_car_max50


    about 4 years ago


    I agree with the Eighth Circuit!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 4 years ago

    Good review of Federal law on the topic. The office must be allowed to retain control of the scene during the investigation and for safety.

  • Maa_class_badge_max50


    over 4 years ago


    when i was in san diego, we were told by our watch supervisor that if there were two or more people in the car and only one of us- call for backup asap. you never know what could happen. better safe than sorry.

  • Bike2008-22_max50


    over 4 years ago


    One for us, lets hope this starts a trend. You know how politicians like to follow the leader.

  • Img014_max50


    almost 5 years ago


    One for the good guys

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago


    Have everyone exit the vehicle? Not a good idea.

  • Gary_picture_max50


    about 5 years ago


    As Chief Dennis stated, better control when you can see everyone....and their hands! Why doesn't anyone mentioned darkened windows when you can't see as you approach the vehicle?

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago

    Very informational. I'm glad I took the time to read this.

  • White_shirt_max50


    about 5 years ago


    I always had everyone exit the vehicle. Better control. Watch those hands.

  • P23-2_max50


    about 5 years ago


    What about getting ID from all the occupants in the vehicle. In the Academy they said you are allowed to, however my FTO said you cannor demand ID,, you have to ask. I cannot find any specific case law regarding this. So far I have been able to either just ask for ID and they comply or use a violation, such as seat belt to require seeing an ID.

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