Do the Police Have the Right to Ask a Driver or Their Passengers to Get Out of the Car?
A common question a lot of our clients ask after they have been stopped by the police:
- Can police ask you to get out of your car?
- Can the police ask a passenger to step out of the car when performing a routine traffic stop?
The question was recently decided by the Supreme Court in Maryland v. Wilson as it pertains to passengers.
What did the Court say?
The Court held that “…an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop.”
Facts of the case
On a June evening at about 7:30 p.m., a Maryland state trooper noticed a car with a rent-a-car sticker dangling from the rear, driving 64 miles per hour when the speed limit was 55 miles per hour. When the officer activated his lights the car proceeded another mile and half before pulling over, at which time the officer noted two passengers in the car. While the driver was collecting his paper the officer asked one of the passengers, Wilson, to step out of the car. When Wilson exited the car, a quantity of drugs fell to the ground. Wilson argued that ordering him out of the car constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
The Court’s reasoning
The Supreme Court decided that asking Wilson to step out of the car was not a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from searches and seizures. The Court cited another Supreme Court case, Pennsylvania v. Mimms, stating that “a police officer may as a matter of course order the driver of a lawfully stopped car to exit his vehicles, extends to passengers as well.” The Court in these two cases reasoned that under the Fourth Amendment the Court must look at the “reasonableness in all the circumstances of the particular governmental invasion of a citizen’s personal security.” This reasonableness involves balancing the officer’s safety when conducting traffic stops and invading a citizen’s personal security. The Court found that by asking a driver or his passenger to step out of the car there is minimal invasion because the car was already validly stopped for a traffic infraction.
Can the Police Order a Driver Out of their Car?
Pennsylvania v. Mimms – Whether an officer can ask the driver to get out of the car
Two police officers pulled over Harry Mimms for driving an automobile with an expired license plate. One of the officers asked Mimms to step out of the car to which Mimms abided. Upon exiting the vehicle, the officers noted a bulge in Mimms jacket. Fearing the bulge could be a weapon the officers conducted a pat down and discovered a gun. Mimms was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon without a license. However, Mimms moved to dismiss charges claiming the search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment.
Mimms claimed that his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the weapon should have been suppressed because the search was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and found that asking Mimms to step out of the car was reasonable when weighing the officer’s safety and the invasion of a citizen’s right to be free from arbitrary interference by law officers.
Reasoning – Why the Court Ruled that way
Reasonableness depends on a balance between public interest and individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference of by law officers. Asking Mimms to get out of the car was seen as a minimal intrusion when compared to the risk officers face when completing traffic stops.
The dissent argued that the officers had no reason to believe that they were at an increased risk or that the driver possessed a weapon, so the search was unreasonable.
Maryland v. Wilson – Whether an officer can ask a passenger to get out of the car
A Maryland state trooper noticed a car with a rent-a-car sticker dangling from the rear driving 64 miles per hour when the speed limit was 55 miles per hour. Once the car pulled over, the officer asked the passenger, Wilson, to step out of the car. When Wilson stepped out a quantity of drugs fell out onto the ground. Wilson was charged with possession with intent to distribute.
Wilson argued that by the officer ordering him to get out of the car his Fourth Amendment right was violated.
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and found that a passenger may be asked to leave the car.
The Court reasoned that when taking into account the reasonableness test laid out in Mimms, there is no additional intrusion on the passenger, but there is an increased risk to officer’s safety when there are passengers in a car.
The dissent contends that by allowing officers to ask passengers to step out of the car, their Fourth Amendment right is violated because they were not initially suspected of violating the law. The dissent believes that the rule is too overreaching to apply to traffic stops in which there is a minimal amount of evidence of a potential risk to the officer.
Maryland Car Stop and Search Lawyers
If you’ve been stopped by the police and you believe they searched your car illegally, contact our office to schedule a free consultation with Baltimore criminal defense attorney Randolph Rice.