Question: May peace officers detain any passenger of a car while they write a citation for the driver?
Quick Answer: No, officers can’t detain passengers at a traffic stop unless they have some reasonable, articulable basis for doing so.
Facts: While conducting a traffic stop, officers discovered that the driver had a suspended license. Because the driver was not allowed to drive the car away, officers approached the passenger, Robert Wilcox, to see if he had a valid license. Wilcox was unresponsive to officers’ questions, was “barely conscious,” and his speech was slurred — clearly in no condition to drive. The officers ordered Wilcox to step out of the vehicle and patted him down. While Wilcox was outside the vehicle, he informed the officers that he needed to urinate and made numerous requests to use a restroom. The officers cautioned Wilcox that he would be arrested if he urinated in public. Wilcox was not under arrest at this point, but he was repeatedly told to sit inside the stopped vehicle. While one officer wrote the driver’s citation for driving with a suspended license, Wilcox was seen urinating on the curb and grass. Wilcox was arrested for public indecency.
Why this case is important: This case demonstrates the difficulty of defining when a person at a scene must be released. Here, there was no evidence that Wilcox was committing a crime or posed a legitimate threat to officers. Therefore, there was no need to restrict his freedom to leave. It’s important to remember that every stop impacts constitutional rights, and since there was no reasonable suspicion that Wilcox was committing a crime, the officers should have let him walk away. These are difficult calls to make in the field because while you think of every person as part of the “scene,” the Constitution protects everyone individually.
Keep in mind: During a legitimate traffic stop, a request for identification from a passenger, followed by a computer check of that information, doesn’t constitute an unreasonable search and seizure as long as the stop isn’t extended in duration beyond the time reasonably necessary. However, passengers are not required to carry identification, and they are not obligated to produce an ID for officers. And if a passenger has committed no criminal offense and decides to leave, you should allow him to do so.
Visit the Second District Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.