SCOTUS Overturns Colorado Law On Traffic Stops

Until yesterday, Colorado was one of only three states in the country that didn’t allow a passenger of a car to challenge an unlawful traffic stop under the 4th Amendment.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, noted today in a footnote to its opinion, that a 2002 decision of the Colorado Supreme Court was wrong on this score  (as were decisions in Washington State and California) .The case arose from a traffic stop in California for expired plates when the police officer saw that there was a valid unexpired temporary license in the proper place on the car.  After the stop, the officer searched car and found evidence pertinent to a drug charge and an outstanding arrest warrant for a passenger.

The judges tried to determine if a passenger is a stopped car is more like the driver who is stopped, or more like someone stuck in traffic behind a car stopped by police, who isn’t considered subject to a traffic stop under the law.

Oral arguments in the case involved a notably frank discussion by the Justices of what it is like to be involved in a traffic stop and had hinted at a possible split decision.  Justice Scalia, for example, noted that as a matter of personal prudence, he never ever passed a policeman when driving, but made a distinction between what is prudent and what the law requires.  He implied that a passenger who chooses not to leave a car might being doing so out of prudence alone.

But, the near unanimity of the decisions of the lower courts, and the absurdity of California’s argument that passengers in cars stopped on highways were free to walk away from the car and ignore a policeman’s orders in that situation, ultimately secured a unanimous decision.

While strictly speaking the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court did not present the validity of either the Washington State or Colorado rulings, the high court singled out the two states in a footnote as being the only two jurisdictions in the United States that had ruled the wrong way on this issue.

It is worth noting that this decision does not necessarily help either the criminal defendant who brought the case, for whom an arrest warrant was outstanding, it merely sends the case back to consider the evidence issue the passenger raised in the first place.  The ruling also does not help passengers in cars which are properly stopped on the basis that there is a reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.  All that it does is allow a passenger in a car to argue that the car was stopped for no valid reason, usually either in a motion to suppress evidence before trial in a criminal case, or in a civil rights lawsuit.

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