The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that every citizen shall enjoy the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” While this right applies to passengers and drivers during a traffic stop, you have slightly different rights and responsibilities as a passenger. While the police have the authority to ask for the driver’s identification during a traffic stop, they don’t have that same authority with regard to the passenger. As a passenger in a vehicle, if the police do not have reasonable suspicion to believe that you have committed a crime, it is legal to refuse to show identification. Reasonable suspicion means that the officer must have a reasonable belief that you have committed a crime or are about to commit a crime.
During a traffic stop, you as the passenger are seized, meaning that the officers have the right to temporarily prevent you from leaving; however, police cannot search you without a reasonable suspicion that a new crime has been committed. Additionally, you have the right to ask whether you can leave at any point during the traffic stop, and it’s quite possible that you will be given permission to do so. Regarding pat-down searches incident to traffic stops, the police must have reasonable suspicion that you, as the passenger, are armed and dangerous in order to justify a pat-down search.
As a passenger, and as a driver, you have the right to remain silent. As mentioned above, you have the right to refuse to answer questions about your identification, so long as the officers do not have reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime. Additionally, you are free to decline to answer any questions at all. If the driver broke a traffic rule, you as the passenger did nothing illegal, and you have every right to decline to answer any questions the authorities may have. You are only a bystander during the traffic stop if there is no proof of criminal activity.
Whether you are the driver or the passenger, it is always beneficial to maintain your composure during a traffic stop. If you reach around or move around a lot in the car, the police might be able to search you and your belongings without asking since it may raise suspicion that you’re attempting to conceal something or access a weapon. Of course, the officer has the right to search you if you agree to a search. Giving an officer permission to search your person or your property is something you should virtually never do. You cannot withdraw your consent after you’ve given it. Lastly, you may be removed from a car if the police have a good reason for doing so. The United States Supreme Court has stated that if a driver is suspected of committing a crime in addition to the initial traffic violation, both the driver and any passengers may be removed.
In the end, even if you believe that the search is unwarranted, your best course of action is to let it happen and keep your mouth shut. DO NOT ANSWER QUESTIONS once you feel that things have escalated, or once you are under police custody or control. You should ALWAYS exercise your right to speak with a lawyer. The lawyers at Banks & Brower are available 24/7 to discuss your case and to offer any assistance.