Recent Court Decisions: Maryland v. Wilson

Police Can Require Passengers in Traffic Stops to Exit Vehicle; Pennsylvania v. Mimms Extended

Maryland v. Wilson, 117 S.Ct. 60 CrL 2077, 1997 WL 65726, No. 95-1268 (1997).

A police officer on solo patrol observed a car speeding on an interstate highway and pulled it over (although it is noteworthy that the vehicle continued for approximately 1-1/2 miles after the officer activated his lights and siren, before stopping). The officer could see three people in the car, two in the front seat, and one person in the back seat. There was much turning and looking at the officer, ducking down, and movement, even after the car stopped.

The officer testified that he was hesitant to approach the car. The driver was "unusually" nervous and trembling. The defendant, a front seat passenger, was sweating and extremely nervous.

The officer directed defendant to exit the car. He testified that his reasons for taking this action were:
Well, due to the movement in the vehicle I thought possibly there could be a handgun in the vehicle. I had concern for my safety. At that time when Mr. McNichol [the driver] went back to the car, I asked Mr. Wilson [defendant] to step out, that is my whole purpose of not approaching the vehicle, by myself, with three occupants in the vehicle, I wanted each one out at a time to speak to each individual, for my safety.
Joint Appendix 32, Maryland v. Wilson, No. 95-1268.

When defendant exited the car, he dropped narcotics in plain view of the officer. He was charged with possession of the narcotics with intent to distribute, and related offenses.

The court below, State v. Wilson, 340 Md. 502, 667 A.2d 342 (Md. App. 1995), refused to extend what it called the "automatic police prerogative" of having drivers in traffic stops exit their vehicles -- under the rule of Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) -- to passengers as well. Reasonable suspicion, the Maryland court said, is required for an order to a passenger to exit an automobile in a simple traffic stop setting.

LELP publisher, James P. Manak filed an amici curiae (friend of the court) brief in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of various law enforcement organizations in support of the State of Maryland.

In a 7-2 decision and an opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Court reversed the Maryland court, holding that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending the completion of the stop. The Mimms rule applies to passengers as well as to drivers, the Court said. The Court explained that in Mimms the touchstone of Fourth Amendment analysis is the reasonableness of the particular governmental invasion of a citizen's personal security, 4 34 U.S., at 108-109, and that reasonableness depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by officers. On the public interest side, the safety of an officer may be at risk regardless of whether the occupant of the stopped car is a driver or a passenger.

Although the passenger may present a stronger case for Fourth Amendment privacy concerns as compared to the driver, the Court said that the danger presented by passengers is equally great as that presented by a driver.

"On the public interest side of the balance, the same weighty interest in officer safety is present regardless of whether the occupant of the stopped car is a driver or passenger. Regrettably, traffic stops may be dangerous encounters. In 1994 alone, ther e were 5,762 officer assaults and 11 officers killed during traffic pursuits and stops. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports: Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 71, 33 (1994). In the case of passengers, the danger of the offic er's standing in the path of oncoming traffic would not be present except in the case of a passenger in the left rear seat, but the fact that there is more than one occupant of the vehicle increases the possible sources of harm to the officer.

"On the personal liberty side of the balance, the case for the passenger is in one sense stronger than that for the driver. There is probable cause to believe that the driver has committed a minor vehicular offense, but there in no such reason to stop or detain the passengers. But as a practical matter, the passengers are already stopped by virtue of the stop of the vehicle. The only change in their circumstances which will result from ordering them out of the car is that they will be outside of, rather t han inside of, the stopped car. Outside the car, the passengers will be denied access to any possible weapon that might be concealed in the interior of the passenger compartment. It would seem that the possibility of a violent encounter stems not from the ordinary reaction of a motorist stopped for a speeding violation, but from the fact that evidence of a more serious crime might be uncovered during the stop. And the motivation of a passenger to employ violence to prevent apprehension for such a crime is every bit as great as that of the driver.

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"In summary, danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car. While there is not the same basis for ordering the passengers out of the car as there is for ordering the driver out, the additional intrusion on the passengers is minimal. We therefore hold that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop."

Justices Stevens and Kennedy dissented.

Note: As with all the cases discussed on the web pages of LELP, do not assume the law on this subject is the same in your jurisdiction; check with your legal advisor to determine the law in your own jurisdiction and how it would apply in a particula r case.

Copyright (c) 1997 Law Enforcement Legal Publications

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