By Aaron Kesel
Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that police may detain passengers any and all passengers during even minor traffic stops and that doing so does not violate constitutional rights to hold someone not suspected of any wrongdoing for a “reasonable” time, The Newspaper reported.
The high court made the ruling after evaluating a January 29, 2015 traffic stop in which a car with a broken tail light was pulled over in Gainesville for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. Gregory Presley was one of two passengers in the stopped vehicle questioned by Officer John Pandak about who he was and where they were going. The officer asked if any of the passengers had been drinking and Presley questioned why would that be a problem.
“I don’t know, man,” Officer Pandak replied. “This is a traffic stop, you’re part of it. So we’re hanging out. That’s all there is to it…. Well, we’re just talking, man. You can’t go anywhere at the moment because you’re part of this stop. That’s all.”
It turns out after running the records of Presley the police officer found out that he was 0n probation for alcohol. Presley was arrested and taken to jail. At trial, Presley argued that the stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights, protection from unreasonable searches and seizures and tried to suppress the evidence against him gained in what he called an “illegal detention.”
Florida’s appellate courts were split on the question, so the high court stepped in to resolve the issue. The justices agreed with prosecutors that an officer’s safety trumps a passenger’s rights.
“The intrusion upon personal liberty is de minimis because the method of transport has already been lawfully interrupted by virtue of the stop, the passenger has already been stopped by virtue of the driver’s lawful detention, and routine traffic stops are brief in duration,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote for the court.
The court added that a passenger of a vehicle cannot be detained any longer than the amount of time it takes to check the driver’s license and write a ticket unless there is a reason to suspect the passenger is involved in any wrongdoing.
“Detention is permissible for this limited period of time because it allows law enforcement officers to safely do their job accomplishing the ‘mission’ of the stop and not be at risk due to potential violence from passengers or other vehicles on the roadway,” Justice Larbarga said.
Another Justice, Barbara J. Pariente, agreed with the other judges on the landmark decision, but she noted that this was a case in which a black man was interrogated in his neighborhood in the morning against his will.
“When the traffic stop does not give rise to a need to question passengers or ask for their identification, I fail to comprehend why the interrogation of passengers on matters unrelated to the traffic stop, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop, does not intrude on the constitutional guarantee to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures,” she wrote.
The Justices declined to address whether or not the new law would affect transportation businesses such as buses and taxis, if a driver was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. In its current state, this ruling theoretically would allow a police officer to detain an entire bus load of people against their will.
“In reaching this holding, we expressly decline to address whether law enforcement may detain passengers during a traffic stop of a common carrier or a vehicle that, at the time of the stop, is being utilized as part of a transportation-based business,” Justice Labarga noted.