Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Excluding Automobile Passengers from Fourth Amendment Protection

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Excluding Automobile Passengers from Fourth Amendment Protection

Article excerpt


In Maryland v. Wilson,(1) the Supreme Court addressed whether police officers can order an innocent passenger to exit a vehicle when the driver is lawfully stopped for traffic violations.(2) The Court held that, as a matter of officer safety, police officers may order a passenger out of a lawfully stopped vehicle without having any particular reason to believe that the passenger poses a threat to the officer.(3) The Court weighed the public interest in effective law enforcement and the protection of police officers' lives against a passenger's liberty interest in remaining free from arbitrary government intervention.(4) The Court found in favor of the public interest: a command to a passenger to exit a vehicle may save an officer's life, while it affords only a petty indignity to a passenger.(5) Under Wilson, a police officer needs only a lawful reason to make a traffic stop; having made it, she is free to order all passengers to exit the vehicle for any, or no, reason.(6)

This Note argues that Wilson represents a departure from prior Supreme Court case law that required Fourth Amendment seizures to be based on specific, articulable facts that would lead a police officer to believe that she is in danger.(7) This Note contends that the Wilson Court erred by refusing to recognize that ordering the passenger to exit the vehicle constituted an illegal seizure.(8) This Note further argues that Wilson represents an isolated instance of Supreme Court authorization of the potentially arbitrary use of state power to seize an innocent, non-threatening person without any showing either of probable cause or reasonable suspicion.(9) This Note concludes by advising that citizens must now look to their state constitutions for any analogous Fourth Amendment protection in this context.(10)


The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires that searches and seizures be reasonable and that warrants be based upon probable cause.(11) The text of the amendment applies only to federal officers and does not contain a remedy on its face for violations.(12) Through the incorporation of the Fourth Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has applied the search and seizure provision of the Fourth Amendment to the individual states.(13) The primary importance of the application of the Fourth Amendment to the states is the imposition of the exclusionary rule(14) as a tool to control state authority and a remedy for Fourth Amendment violations.(15) Using the exclusionary rule, the courts have the ability both to oversee the use of state power and to control that power by refusing to authorize outrageous abuses of it.(16)

In earlier interpretations of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court required state actors, such as police officers, always to show probable cause before seizing a person.(17) The state actor could show probable cause to a neutral magistrate before making a seizure, and thereby obtain a warrant authorizing the seizure,(18) or the state actor could make the showing after seizing a person when the person was on trail.(19) Absent a showing of probable cause that the individual was engaged in wrongdoing at the time of the seizure, however, the seizure was found unconstitutional.(20)


In Terry v. Ohio,(21) the Supreme Court authorized an exception to the Fourth Amendment's probable cause requirement.(22) The Court held that an officer's articulable suspicion may be sufficient to justify a warrantless stop and search.(23) The Court defined articulable suspicion as a belief, not rising to the level of probable cause, that the individual affords a danger to the officer.(24) The suspicion must be based on observable facts, as opposed to hunches, that can later be articulated to a judge.(25) The Court emphasized that the circumstances of each situation provide the justification for a warrantless stop and search. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.