Passengers Beware: Probable Cause to Stop the Driver Can Be Enough to Search You
In a published opinion issued October 27, 2009, the Minnesota Appellate Court ruled that “[u]nder Article I, section 10, of the Minnesota Constitution, a police officer does not need an individualized justification for directing a passenger in a legally stopped vehicle to get out of the vehicle,” and that “[t]he plain-feel exception to the warrant requirement applies when an officer performing a pat search has probable cause to believe that an object is contraband before seizing the object.”
The facts are pretty common – which is why this opinion will likely have an impact on many individual’s lives in coming months and years. In State v. Krenik, the defendant was riding as a passenger in her own car because she was distraught and had asked her friend to drive for her. Their car was stopped by police because there was something hanging from the mirror and because the driver had failed to signal a turn. During the stop, the officer learned that the driver was not the owner of the car, and that the friend’s driver’s license was suspended. He asked her to step out of the car, and issued her a citation for driving with a suspended license. He then returned to the car to speak with the owner/passenger. He asked her to step out of the car, so they could make sure she was alright to drive, since the driver could not continue driving without a valid license.
As she was stepping out of the car, the officers noticed a bulky object in her front sweatshirt pocket. Because she placed her hands into that pocket when the officers had told her specifically to keep her hands out of her pockets, one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement was triggered – one involving an officer’s ability to perform a quick pat-down search of an individual for items that could cause harm to officers – and in doing this, the officer found a glass pipe with narcotics residue on it and a baby-wipe container that the officer stated was large enough to have potentially contained a small hand gun, but which, upon search, contained methamphetamine.
The defendant was arrested and charged with a first-degree controlled-substance crime. Finally, because there wasn’t anyone at this point to drive the vehicle home, the police had it towed, and upon inventorying the vehicle, they found a black purse with a scale and baggies in it – commonly used to distribute narcotics.
From a traffic stop for failing to signal a turn and having something small dangling from the mirror to a first degree controlled substance arrest, the Minnesota Appellate Court agreed with the state that the search was lawful and therefore the evidence seized was admissible and the charges stood.
There are a number of lessons that can be learned from this case, but the essential two are these: Before allowing someone else to drive your vehicle, find out if he or she has a valid Minnesota driver’s license; and, know that anytime you get into a car and travel on public roadways, your reasonable expectation to privacy is significantly reduced under Minnesota law and police have a broader range of legal ways to search and/or seize you or your property.