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Can Police Detain Innocent Passengers During a Traffic Stop?

On Behalf of | Nov 15, 2016 | Cases of Interest, civil rights, Criminal Defense

The Fourth Amendment restricts when a police officer may stop a person. Generally, an officer must have probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime in order to stop them. When police officers conduct a traffic stop, there is no question that they are allowed detain the driver. But what happens if one of the passengers of the vehicle wants to leave in the middle of the stop?

In a decision rendered last week, Presley v. State, the First District Court of appeal considered that very issue. The court held that, as a matter of course, police officers can prohibit passengers from leaving during a traffic stop. In Presley, the officers detained two passengers over the course of a traffic stop. The defendant admitted that he had been drinking earlier that night. When the officer ran the defendant’s name, he discovered that the defendant was on probation and was not allowed to drink. At trial, the defendant’s criminal defense attorney sought to suppress his confession, as well as a bag of cocaine found on his person during the arrest. The Court in Presley reasoned that detaining passengers during traffic stops was constitutional because it promoted officer safety.

A prior Supreme Court decision, Maryland v. Wilson, held that police officers can ask passengers to get out of a vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment. However, in 1999, the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal decided a case called Wilson v. State, which held that officers could not order passengers to remain inside a vehicle during a traffic stop. The Fourth District reasoned that completely restricting a passenger’s ability to go about his independent way placed a greater restriction on liberty than simply ordering them to step out of the car.

The First District’s opinion last week joins another opinion by the Fifth District Court of Appeal, Aguiar v. State, disagreeing with the Wilson court’s holding. Both of these courts have found that the officer’s interest in safety outweighs the passenger’s liberty interest. Given that the First District has certified a conflict with the Wilson opinion, this issue could very well be going to the Florida Supreme Court in the near future.