Brendlin v. California

PETITIONER: Bruce Edward Brendlin
RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: Seattle School District

DOCKET NO.: 06-8120
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of California

CITATION: 551 US 249 (2007)
GRANTED: Jan 19, 2007
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2007
DECIDED: Jun 18, 2007

Clifford E. Zall - on behalf of Respondent
Elizabeth M. Campbell - on behalf of Petitioner

Facts of the case

Police stopped Karen Simeroth's car for having expired registration tabs. Bruce Brendlin, who had a warrant out for his arrest, was riding in the passenger seat. Police found methamphetamine, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia in the car and on Simeroth's person. In a California trial court, Brendlin filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained at the traffic stop, claiming that the stop was an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court found that Brendlin had never been detained or "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. It denied the motion, and Brendlin pleaded guilty to manufacturing methamphetamine. A California Court of Appeal reversed, holding that a traffic stop necessarily results in a Fourth Amendment seizure.

The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal and ruled for California. The court held that the driver of the car is the only one detained in a traffic stop. The movement of any passengers is also stopped as a practical matter, but the court considered this merely a necessary byproduct of the detention of the driver. The court held that Brendlin had been free to leave the scene of the traffic stop or to simply ignore the police. Since he was never "seized," however, he could not claim a violation of the Fourth Amendment.


When a vehicle is subject to a traffic stop, is a passenger in the vehicle "detained" for purposes of the Fourth Amendment?

Media for Brendlin v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 2007 in Brendlin v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 18, 2007 in Brendlin v. California

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Souter has our opinion this morning in case 06-8120, Brendlin v. California.

David H. Souter:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of California.

In the morning of November 27th, 2001 the police stopped the car to check its registration but without reasonable suspicion that the car was being operated unlawfully.

During the traffic stop one of the officers recognized the petitioner Bruce Brendlin who was a passenger in the car as a parole violator after verifying that Brendlin was subject to an outstanding arrest warrant, the officer formally arrested him, and searched him, the driver and the car finding materials used to make methamphetamine.

Brendlin move to suppress evidence in the ensuing prosecution arguing that the traffic stop was an unlawful seizure of his person.

The Trial Court denied the motion, but the California Court of Appeal reversed holding that Brendlin was seized by the traffic stop which was unlawful.

The State Supreme Court reversed in turn finding that although the officers stopped the car without justification the evidence seized was not the fruit of an unlawful seizure because Brendlin as a passenger was not seized when the car was stopped, rather the Sate Supreme Court said, Brendlin was seized only at the point of his formal and otherwise lawful arrest.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today we vacate the California Supreme Court’s opinion and hold that when a police officer makes traffic stop a passenger in the car like the driver is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and so may challenge the constitutionality of the stop.

The critical question under our precedent is whether a reasonable in Brendlin’s position when the car was stopped would have believed himself free to leave or otherwise terminate the encounter with the police.

We think any reasonable passenger would have understood that the officers were exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission.

A traffic stop necessarily curtails the passenger’s travel as much as it halts the driver’s.

It diverts both from the stream of traffic to the side of a road and the police activity that normally amounts to intrusion on privacy and personal security does not and did not here and distinguish between passenger and driver.

An officer who orders a car to pull over acts with an implicit claim on right based on fault of some sort and a sensible person would not expect the officer to allow people to come and go freely from the physical focal point of an investigation into faulty behavior or wrongdoing.

If the likely wrongdoing is not the driving, the passenger will reasonably feel subject to suspicion owing to close association with the driver, but even when the wrongdoing is over bad driving, that passenger will expect to be subject to some scrutiny and his attempt to leave would be so obviously likely to put a prompt an objection from the officer that no passenger would feel free to leave in the first place.

It’s also reasonable for passengers to expect that an officer at the scene of a crime arrest or investigation will not let people move around in ways that could jeopardize his safety.

Our conclusion is consistent with the views of all Nine Federal Courts of Appeals and nearly every State Court who have ruled on a question.

The Supreme Court of California reached a different result based on three arguments that we find unpersuasive.

First the State Court’s assertion that the officers only intended to investigate the car as driver impermissibly shifts the issue from the intend of the police as objectively manifested to the motive of the police for taking the intentional action to stop the car.

Applying the objective test described above we conclude that a reasonable passenger would understand that he was subject to the police display of authority.

Second, although the State Court correctly noted that Brendlin had no affective way to signal submission while the car was moving once it came to a stop he could and apparently did submit by staying inside.

He was there before seized, when the car came to a halt on the side of the road.

Third, the rule announced today does not encompass motorists whose movement is imputed due to traffic stop with another car.

An occupant of the car who knows he is stuck in traffic because another car has been pulled over would not perceive to police show of authority to be directed to him or his car.

For the reason stated we vacate the State Supreme Court’s opinion and remand for further proceedings not in consistent with this opinion.

The State Courts will have to consider in the first instance whether suppression trends on any other issue.

Our opinion is unanimous.