No protection for passengers Supreme Court: Traffic stop ruling sides with police in Maryland case.

February 23, 1997

ORAL ARGUMENTS were not the finest hour for Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. when he joined U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in her first appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court. Interruptions from the justices seemed to make a hash of his case that the Maryland Court of Appeals should be overruled in its decision that state troopers had no authority to order a passenger out of a car during a traffic stop in Baltimore County in 1994.

In urging the Supreme Court to overturn the unanimous Maryland ruling, Mr. Curran and Ms. Reno cited the danger traffic stops can pose to police officers. For a court that has generally been receptive to expanded police powers, the skeptical questions that greeted those arguments came as something of a surprise. Now, in a 7-2 decision, it appears that if the justices had problems with the specific arguments, they concurred on the central issue.

The passenger in question, Jerry Lee Wilson, dropped a bag of cocaine as he exited the car. Maryland courts later ruled that the substance could not be submitted as evidence, since the officer had no automatic right to order a passenger, rather than the driver, to get out of the car. Thus, the discovery of the cocaine came through what amounted to an illegal search.

A 7-2 majority reversed that decision. Chief Justice William Rehnquist described the additional intrusion on the passenger as minimal and noted that the danger to an officer is likely to be greater when there is more than one person in the stopped car. While police groups and law enforcement officials hailed the ruling, we are concerned by the court's willingness to expand police powers at the potential expense of the dignity and liberty of innocent citizens.

The two dissenters in the case, Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Anthony Kennedy, were also troubled by this possibility. Justice Stevens cited another precedent which, he believes, gives police officers authority to order passengers out of cars if they have "an articulable suspicion of possible danger."

As Justice Kennedy noted, "It might . . . be said that if some jurisdictions use today's ruling to require passengers to exit as a matter of routine in every stop, citizen complaints and political intervention will call for an end to the practice. These arguments, however, would miss the point. Liberty comes not from officials by grace but from the Constitution by right."

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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