In the recently decided case of People v Mead, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement cannot search a passenger’s backpack without a search warrant or consent to search by the passenger.
The case involved the stop of a vehicle by law enforcement because the driver had expired license plates. The front seat passenger was holding his backpack in his lap at the time of the stop. When police asked him to step away from the vehicle, he left the backpack on the floorboard.
Although the police obtained the consent of the driver to search the car, they did not obtain the passenger’s consent to search his backpack. The police searched the backpack and found drugs.
This state Supreme Court case is important for a number of reasons:
First, it is clear now that in Michigan, a passenger has legal standing to challenge the search of items in which he or she has a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the police search an item in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy without a search warrant or without obtaining consent to search, they have just violated the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects persons from unreasonable searches and seizures. Searches are, per se, unreasonable if they are executed by law enforcement without a search warrant.
Second, the fact that the police obtained the consent of the driver to search the car has no effect on the search of the passenger’s backpack as the driver did not have authority over the passenger’s item. Only the passenger can offer consent to search his personal belongings.
This means, in Michigan, police can no longer search the personal property of a passenger who happens to be in a vehicle that is stopped by the police for a traffic violation without a warrant. If the police do not have a search warrant and do not obtain consent, the search is illegal and the evidence is suppressed. When the evidence is suppressed the case will be dismissed.
In the Mead case, police found a digital scale, five prescription pills, 9.8 grams of marijuana, and 4.03 grams of methamphetamine. The passenger was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. His conviction was reversed based upon the unconstitutional search and seizure conducted by the police.
Levine & Levine Attorney Sarissa Montague told WWMT Channel 3 in May that this state Supreme Court ruling on vehicle searches is a big win for Michigan passengers.
“The people that are in a car for the past few years didn’t have what we call standing in order to question the search and what this case is now saying they do have the standing to question the search,” she said during the interview. “You don’t lose your Fourth Amendment protection just because you are in a vehicle.”
Levine & Levine has many years of experience defending persons whose Fourth Amendment rights have been violated. If you have questions concerning your rights please contact us.