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Facts and Case Summary - Brendlin v. California

Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. __, 127 S. Ct. 2400 (2007)
Under the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure provisions, a car passenger in a traffic stop may challenge the legality of the stop.


The police pulled over a vehicle to determine whether the driver was driving with expired tags. During the stop, an officer recognized the defendant, Bruce Brendlin, as a parole violator. The officer arrested the defendant and found methamphetamine on his person. The defendant was charged with parole violation and possession of narcotics. At his trial, he moved to suppress (keep out) the narcotics, stating that the police lacked justification to stop the automobile in the first place. The defendant’s argument was that the temporary plates indicated that an application for renewal of an expired license was pending. The State of California conceded, on appeal, that the stop was unjustified.


The case was tried in the California state court system. The trial court held that the passenger had not been seized for Fourth Amendment purposes. The evidence was admitted and the defendant was convicted. The Court of Appeals reversed. The California Supreme Court reinstated the drug evidence and the conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear the case.


Whether, under the Fourth Amendment, a passenger during a traffic stop is seized so that the passenger may challenge the legality of the stop.




Any person seized by a Government agent can challenge the legality of that seizure. In United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544(1980), the Court held that the test for determining whether a person is seized is whether a reasonable person would feel free to leave under the circumstances. Under the circumstances of this case, no reasonable passenger would have felt free to leave the scene. Although the State of California noted that the defendant might have felt free to leave because he opened (then shut) his door during the stop, the test is objective: What a reasonable person would conclude; not what a particular defendant thinks. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected several findings by the California Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the finding that the police only intended to investigate the driver. It also rejected the California court’s concerns that passengers in taxis, buses, and other commercial transportation could be subject to investigation and possible arrest when the driver is pulled over. The U.S. Supreme Court noted that there is a difference between social passengers in private transportation and passengers in commercial transportation.


None (unanimous decision).


None (unanimous decision).