Today in 1999: The Supreme Court rules that police can search car passengers’ belongings while seeking evidence against the driver

April 5, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryWhen you get into a car when someone else is driving, you likely give some thought to the skill and care that the driver uses when operating the vehicle.

But do you also consider whether the driver – or any other passengers, for that matter – may be carrying contraband?

Why does that matter?  In case the car is stopped by the police.

As most criminal law practitioners are aware, if the police stop a car (and have a constitutional reason for doing so), and notice something that would give an officer probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband, a passenger’s belongings aren’t exempt from this search.

And probable cause is satisfied if the police detect any evidence of contraband in the vehicle.

This principle was established by the Supreme Court 14 years ago today in the 1999 ruling, Wyoming v. Houghton.

In Houghton, the Wyoming Highway Patrol stopped a vehicle for speeding.  There were three individuals in the front seat of the car: David Young (the driver), his girlfriend, and Sandra Houghton.

While the officer was questioning Young, he noticed a hypodermic needle in Young’s shirt pocket.   The officer then asked Young to step out of the car and place the needle on the hood, then asking why Young why he had it.  “[W]ith refreshing candor, Young replied that he used it to take drugs.”

In light of this admission, the police ordered the two females out of the car, and proceeded to search the car and its compartments for contraband.

The police found a purse on the back seat, which Houghton stated was hers.  The police then searched the purse, and discovered “drug paraphernalia and a syringe with 60 ccs of methamphetamine.”

Houghton was charged with felony possession of methamphetamine.  She moved to suppress the evidence from the search of the purse as the fruit of a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which was denied by the trial court.  She was later convicted by a jury.

Upon appeal, however, the Wyoming State Supreme Court overturned Houghton’s conviction, finding that, once probable cause to search a vehicle has been established, an officer is entitled to search all containers therein “which may contain the object of the search.” However, this license does not apply to the personal effect of a passenger who is not suspected of criminal activity, “unless someone had the opportunity to conceal the contraband within the personal effect to avoid detection.”

The state of Wyoming appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who reversed the Wyoming high court.

In a 6-3 decision, the Houghton majority, written by Justice Scalia and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, Thomas, and Breyer, held that the officers had probable cause to search a passenger’s belongings because the police had probable cause to search any containers in the car “capable of concealing the object of the search.”

Citing heavily to the 1982 U.S. v. Ross decision, the majority further found that, even though Ross and other pertinent case law never explicitly discussed whether a passenger’s belongings may be searched when the passenger is not suspected of criminal activity, none of those authorities explicitly created an exception protecting passengers and their belongings, so one doesn’t exist.

The dissent, written by Justice Stevens and joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, disagreed.  Instead, they found that the majority was misreading Ross, which did not create a broad authorization for police to search everywhere within a vehicle, but only “the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.”

In short, the dissent wrote, there must be probable cause for each item searched within the car.

The majority determined that such an analysis was unnecessary, finding that the passenger’s privacy expectations are outweighed by “the governmental interests at stake.”

And because the majority’s viewpoint won the day, its interpretation of Ross is the legally binding one, regardless of whether it is more correct than the dissent’s.

As a result, you should be aware of what may be in the possession of the driver of a vehicle in which you are a passenger.

Unless you’re okay with the police going through your stuff, make sure the driver isn’t carrying contraband.