61 Fla. L. Rev. 329 (2009) | | | |

:: On November 27, 2001, Deputy Sheriff Robert Brokenbrough noticed a Buick with expired registration tags. After verifying from the police dispatcher that the application for renewal tags was being processed, and therefore the Buick was not in violation of any traffic laws, he decided to pull the Buick over anyway. When Brokenbrough approached the vehicle, he saw the passenger, Bruce Brendlin, whom he recognized as someone who had dropped out of parole supervision. When backup arrived, the officers ordered Brendlin out of the car at gunpoint and placed him under arrest. Deputies found an orange syringe cap on Brendlin, and a search of the car revealed tubing and a scale, objects used for the production of methamphetamine.

Brendlin was charged with the possession and manufacture of methamphetamine. He later moved to suppress the evidence obtained during both searches as fruits of an unconstitutional seizure of his person. The trial court found that Brendlin, as a passenger, was not seized during the lawful traffic stop and denied the motion. Brendlin ultimately pleaded guilty, subject to an appeal on the suppression motion.

The United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that a passenger is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment during a traffic stop because a reasonable person in the passenger’s position would not have felt free to depart without the officer’s permission.

At first blush, this holding seemed wholly unremarkable. Indeed, this decision comported with the views of nine circuit courts of appeal, and nearly every state to have confronted the issue. Authors of treatises on Fourth Amendment seizures have also agreed, even without a clear mandate from the Court. The Court even noted that it had essentially already reached its conclusion in previous cases, albeit in dicta. During oral argument, the Justices seemed incredulous at California’s position that a reasonable passenger would feel free to leave the scene during a traffic stop.