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Supreme Court Ruling: Public Safety & Privacy Review

13 Jul 2017Essay Samples


The Fourth Amendment is regularly challenged on the basis of privacy violation and illegal search an seizures, as the interpretation of this amendment is often unclear. In June 2007 in the case Brendin v. California the United States Supreme Court ruled that when police pull over a vehicle not only is the driver restricted from leaving the scene and subject to search, so is the passenger. Because the California Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Brendlin, the court remanded the case for further proceedings. At the time of the incident the officer discovered Brendlin was in possession of an illegal substance as well as an outstanding warrant for his arrest; therefore, he was taken into police custody. Brendlin challenged this search and seizure claiming that it was illegal.

In the early hours of November 27, 2001 Susan Simeron was pulled over by Sherriff Deputy Robert Brokenbrough and his partner because he noticed the registration tags for her car had expired. Brokenbrough chose to radio the police station to obtain information concerning the vehicle and learned that Susan had applied for license renewal. The tags validating the application were properly displayed the; however the officer chose to validate the authenticity. [1]

When the officer approached the vehicle he requested Susan’s identification and in the process he realized that the passenger looked familiar and identified him as “one of the Brendlin brothers.” [1] The officer knew that one of the brothers was a “parole at large” so he asked for his identity and determined that the passenger was Bruce Brendlin. Brokenbrough radioed the station for confirmation and found that his suspicions about the warrant were correct; therefore he radioed for back up. [1]

Brokenbrough drew his gun and then approached the car once again demanding that Brendlin exit the car as he was under arrest due to an outstanding warrant. Once Brendlin was detained and had been placed under arrest the officer discovered an “orange syringe cap.” [1] This discovery provided the officers probable cause to search the vehicle, which resulted in the discovery of various other illegal drugs as well as “drug production equipment.” [1]

Brendlin was charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and with possessing and transporting methamphetamine when he was apprehended. During the trial he motioned the court to suppress the drug evidence the police had gathered at the time of the incident, as his right to privacy had been violated through an illegal search and seizure. The State of Califoria’s response was that his conviction should stand because the Fourth Amendment rights only protected the driver in this situation. The state also argued that “drivers, not passengers, are the focus of traffic stops.” [2] Justice David Souter denied Brendlin’s motion to suppress and he was convicted for the crime.

After pleading guilty to the manufacturing of methamphetamines, Brendlin appealed the denial of his motion to suppress. The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP supported his claims, as they believed the court would encourage the police to violate the privacy of others, “especially minorities, who lack the same rights.” [1] The Court of Appeal reversed the original court decision based upon the fact that Brokenbrough lacked grounds to stop the vehicle; however, the court upheld the fact that the passenger was in fact seized at the time of the stop. Based upon Brokenbrough’s actions the court claimed that Brendlin’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated and the motion to suppress was granted. [1]

The case was then presented to the California Supreme Court, who upheld the fact that “as a passenger, Brendlin was not seized when the car was stopped” and as a result he suffered no violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The California Supreme Court stated that a Brendlin’s right to invoke his Fourth Amendment rights did not take place until after Brokenbrough had taken him into custody, which at that time the officer had probable cause to arrest him as well as justification to search Brendlin and the vehicle. [1]

On April 23, 2007 Brendlin v. California was brought to the United States Supreme Court for a ruling. After deliberation the court handed down their interpretation on June 18, 2007, which held “When police make a traffic stop, a passenger in the car, like the driver, is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes and so may challenge the stop’s constitutionality.” [3] The Supreme Court also stated that “Brendlin was seized because no reasonable person in his position when the car was stopped would have believed himself to be free to ‘terminate the encounter’ between the police and himself.” [3]

Right to Privacy, Public Safety & the Fourth Amendment

The United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment gives the citizens the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” and to uphold this statement it states that “…no Warrants shall issue, but upon reasonable cause, be supported by Oath or Affirmation…” [4] This particular Amendment of the US Constitution has been debated on several occasions as its interpretation concerning the civil liberties individuals has surrounding the Right to Privacy.

During crime investigations police may detain or arrest an individual if probable cause is determined and at that time they may invoke a person’s Right to Privacy; therefore, under the limits of the law search the individual for incrimination evidence. During the 2006 – 2007 terms, the Search and Seizure law once again presented itself to the United States Supreme Court for yet another interpretation, in the case of Brendlin v. California the debate surrounded the rights one has while riding as a passenger in a vehicle. The question – in the interest of public safety, what conditions are required to revoke one’s Fourth Amendment rights without fear that one will claim his right to privacy has been violated?

This particular topic has been presented for interpretation by our government on many occasions where the actions of police officers have been questioned. The California Supreme Court suggested that a passenger in a vehicle had every right to get out of the car and walk away from the scene; however, giving this type of freedom when there is questionable activity that could pose a threat to public safety is dangerous. In the case of Brendlin v. California, a warrant was discovered that provided the officer the right to take the defendant into custody. As a result, evidence was presented that proved there was probable cause to search his person. The result of the search revealed that the defendant was in possession of illegal drugs, which provided the officers probable cause to search the vehicle and ultimately uncover items used to manufacture methamphetamines. If the officer’s right to perform a search and seizure was revoked in a situation such as this, public safety would have been compromised.

The courts debated the legality of a passenger’s rights while riding as a passenger in a vehicle as questionable, however similar cases such as this have been debated in the past without being taken to the US Supreme Court. In Washoe County’s case 1998 People v. Daverin, a truck passenger was arrested during a traffic stop. The police investigation revealed that Daverin had an outstanding warrant; therefore the officer’s duty was to execute that warrant and take him into custody. The officers then performed a routine search of the vehicle and discovered “a pipe and a substance that appeared to be marijuana” and as a result charges were filed. [5] The court ruled that the police discovery during the investigation presented probable cause and that this in no way violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the individual in question. [5]

The Fourth Amendment’s interpretation through the courts often reveals an inconsistency when taking the big picture into consideration. The interpretation of the word “privacy” has yet to be clearly defined, as until we understand the government’s interpretation interpreting the Fourth Amendment is difficult. Looking at the historical data provided by the courts William Heffernan states that the in his article Fourth Amendment Privacy Interests, that the interpretation of privacy. The author states that the first strand is “…when someone wishes not to reveal something about her person, then limiting access to her person becomes essential to controlling the dissemination of information about herself.” [4] Heffernan describes the second as surrounding the topic of informational privacy, as he states “in the modern world, a person is often not in the place where information about her life is located,” and the freedom to grant or deny access is not present. [4]

A person’s information should be protected if there is no evidence of criminal activity, as in the case of personal identification records, employment records and financial records. In the case of Brendlin v. California, Judge Souter’s original decision was the consensus of most American people as he stated “We think that in these circumstances, any reasonable passenger would have understood the police officers to be exercising control to the point that no one in the car was free to depart without police permission.” [4] Law enforcement is entrusted by our government to protect the citizens from harm’s way and if probable cause is suspected during a routine stop of a vehicle the officer should be free to investigate such an issue. In the case of Brendlin the outstanding warrant provided probable cause to revoke his right to privacy, as a valid warrant not only violates the law it compromises the level of public safety.

Social policies are meant to give citizens the right to exist in an environment where living conditions meet the needs of the people. The quality of life is compromised when the right to privacy is protected under circumstances where probably cause exists. As the war on drugs runs rampant in the United States, police must be able to protect society and still uphold the Fourth Amendment. The government has an obligation to take the current language of the Fourth Amendment into consideration and provide a clear interpretation to the country.

In Conclusion

In the case Brendlin v. California the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution was brought to the Supreme Court for interpretation for the purpose of suppressing evidence that revealed the use and manufacturing of illegal drugs. The police’s right to claim probable cause was questioned; therefore, putting limits upon the officer’s duty to protect the interests of the public. Society continues to battle the War on Drugs and unless officer’s have the right to hold perpetrators accountable, this war cannot be won. This is not to say that the Fourth Amendment should be violated for these purposes, however the government should provide a clear interpretation of the circumstances in which a person’s privacy can be violated in the interest of public safety.

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[1] Amar, V. D. (2007). An Upcoming Supreme Court Fourth Amendment Decision: Can a Passenger Be Constitutionally Searched After an Unconstitutional Traffic Stop?.

[2] Sherman, M. (2007). Passengers, like drivers, have rights, justice rul.

[3] United States Supreme Court (2007). BRENDLIN v. CALIFORNIA.

[4] Heffernan, W. C. (2001). Fourth Amendment privacy interests. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

[5] Washoe County District Attorney's Office (1998). Brief Bank.

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