In April of 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a passenger in a car could decline a search of their personal property even if the vehicle owner consented to a vehicular search. The Court overruled its 2007 People v LaBelle ruling, which barred passengers from challenging a search of their property and/or the vehicle. To justify overturning precedent, the Court cited a person’s Constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
The Fourth Amendment reads, in full:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (emphasis added)
What Is “Reasonable Privacy” to a Court?
The Michigan Supreme Court, in their Mead decision, wrote, “to invoke the Fourth Amendment’s protections, a defendant must first establish that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched. Moreover, the expectation of privacy must be one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.” Courts far beyond Michigan have continued to debate what is considered reasonable, but in this case, the justices were agreed that even within a space, a person’s expectation of privacy can vary between items and/or circumstances.
The Michigan Supreme Court continued, “a passenger’s personal property is not subsumed by the vehicle that carries it for Fourth Amendment purposes. A person can get in a car without leaving his Fourth Amendment rights at the curb.”
Warrants, Consent, and Probable Cause
In Mead, the Michigan Supreme Court found that the passenger, Larry Mead, had a legitimate expectation of privacy for his backpack and the belongings therein. The case originated after Mr. Mead was hitching a ride with an unknown driver who was pulled over.
During the stop, the arresting officer observed him hugging his backpack on his lap while sitting in the passenger seat. However, when asking whether he could search her car and person, the officer received affirmative consent from the driver—and only her. Mr. Mead was asked to exit the vehicle for the search, and when he did so, he left his backpack behind. Despite his belief that the backpack belonged to Mr. Mead, the officer included it in his search. He found methamphetamines, other drugs, and drug paraphernalia in Mr. Mead’s backpack.
The Michigan Supreme Court, upon hearing the facts, declared the officer’s search unlawful under the Fourth Amendment because:
- The officer did not receive consent from Mr. Mead to search his belongings, and a driver cannot give consent for her passengers.
- The officer had no probable cause to search Mr. Mead’s backpack, as he was merely the passenger in a traffic stop.
- The officer did not have a search warrant for Mr. Mead’s backpack or, indeed, any of his belongings.
Without an explicit legal justification for his actions, the officer’s search infringed on Mr. Mead’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Michigan Supreme Court ruling points out that a reasonable police officer would not have believed the driver of a vehicle had the authority to consent to a search of a passenger’s backpack, and the search was therefore unreasonable. Aside from overturning the precedent of LaBelle, the decision rendered the officer’s evidence against Mr. Mead inadmissible in court.
Protecting Your Constitutional Rights in Criminal Investigations
Cops infringe on Americans’ freedoms frequently, and without a lawyer on hand to identify and challenge police overstepping, most people don’t know how to defend their Constitutional rights. No matter how much evidence the state has, if it was gathered through illegal practices, it should be made inadmissible, and charges dismissed. We fiercely defend our clients and ensure their rights are protected to the full extent of the law. Let us know if we can help you.
Has a Fourth Amendment violation put you in a sticky situation? Contact our office today at (616) 608-7149 for a free consultation.