Court Battles

Michigan Supreme Court rules police can’t search passengers during stops without consent

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The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that police officers do not have the authority to search passengers of a vehicle without consent. 

The ruling stems from May 2014 case involving a passenger named Larry Mead, who was arrested shortly after what he claimed to be an unlawful search of his backpack by Jackson County police around the time, The Detroit News Times reports.

According to the court’s 16-page opinion, Mead had been riding as a passenger in the car of Rachel Taylor, a woman he had met earlier that day, when the vehicle had been stopped by Jackson Police Officer Richard Burkart due to the car’s expired plate.

{mosads}“As he approached the car to ask for Taylor’s license and registration, Burkart observed the defendant, Larry Gerald Mead, in the passenger seat, clutching a black backpack on his lap,” the court wrote in its opinion last week.

The officer then asked Mead to exit the car and proceeded to ask Taylor how she knew the man and whether he could have consent to search her vehicle. During his search of the car, the officer found Mead’s backpack to have contained a digital scale, prescription pills and almost 10 grams of marijuana and methamphetamine.

Mead was convicted soon after and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. During his trial, a court ruled against his motion to “suppress the evidence of methamphetamine in his backpack as the fruit of an illegal search.”

But the Michigan Supreme Court said in a ruling that Mead had “legitimate expectation” of privacy regarding his backpack and that Mead, who has served roughly three years in prison so far, had a challenge to the search of his backpack on the grounds of the Fourth Amendment.

“A passenger’s personal property is not subsumed by the vehicle that carries it for Fourth Amendment purposes,” the court said in the recent ruling, adding that “a person can get in a car without leaving his Fourth Amendment rights at the curb.”

The court stated in the ruling that although Mead had no “legitimate expectation of privacy in the interior of Taylor’s vehicle, he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his backpack that society is willing to recognize as reasonable.”

“An objectively reasonable police officer would not have believed that Taylor had actual or apparent authority over defendant’s backpack. Officer Burkart testified that he believed the backpack belonged to the defendant,” the justices wrote. “No evidence suggested that Taylor had mutual use of the backpack.” 

“A backpack is used to transport personal items, which suggests individual ownership rather than common ownership,” the court continued. “Burkart knew at the time of the search that Taylor and the defendant were near strangers.” 

“Given this brief relationship, a reasonable officer could not conclude that Taylor had mutual use of the defendant’s backpack,” the ruling went on. “Taylor was like a rideshare driver who has only short-term contact with passengers—an objectively reasonable officer would not believe (absent unusual circumstances) that an Uber driver could consent to the search of his passenger’s purse, for example.” 

“And since Taylor didn’t have the apparent authority to consent to the search of the backpack, the scope of her consent is irrelevant. By definition, the scope of a person’s consent cannot exceed her apparent authority to give that consent,” the court added, concluding: “We therefore hold that the warrantless search of the defendant’s backpack was unreasonable and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.”

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