Passengers: Exit on command? Search and seizure: High court gives appeal of Maryland case a rough hearing.

December 23, 1996

THE SUPREME COURT has recognized the right of police officers to order drivers out of their vehicles during lawful traffic 00 stops. Can they do the same thing to all passengers in the car without a reasonable suspicion that the passenger has done something illegal?

A Maryland case stemming from a 1994 incident raised the question in a form which reached the Supreme Court this month. Although the issue seemed routine enough for the U.S. attorney general to make an appearance before the court, both U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran encountered rough questions from several justices who appeared unhappy with their arguments.

If the skepticism expressed by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and other justices is borne out in the court's ruling, they are likely to concur with a unanimous decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (upheld by the U.S. Court of )) Appeals), rejecting the argument for an automatic right for police to order all passengers out of a vehicle after a traffic stop. That is an outcome neither Mr. Curran nor Ms. Reno expected before the oral arguments, given the court's general receptiveness to expanded police powers.

But the justices were clearly unhappy with the scope of Mr. Curran's argument, especially his suggestion that police not only could order all the occupants of a vehicle to get out, but also detain them while questioning the driver. What about forcing a mother and infant onto the roadside in a snowstorm, asked Justice O'Connor. Or what about an elderly person with dementia who might wander away during questioning? What would the officer do, "Shoot him?" she asked.

The constitutional principle at issue is the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. While the court may feel police need enhanced powers in some areas '' of their work, oral arguments in this case clearly struck a nerve. Should the justices reject any automatic right for police officers to order all passengers out of vehicles during traffic stops, it will prove a comfort to those who find themselves riding in a speeding vehicle.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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