What Legal Rights Do I Have As A Car Passenger?
You do not lose your constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches, by choosing to ride in someone else’s vehicle. While the Supreme Court has made this clear, there seem to be misunderstandings about the extent of those protections. In every traffic stop, an officer may order a driver to step out of the car. Studies show that approaching a driver seated in a car is a dangerous and life-threatening endeavor for an officer. Concerns over the safety of those officers led to in large part to this standard, black letter rule. N much the same way
As a matter of course an officer may order a passenger out of the car during a traffic stop.
That does not mean that the passenger is subject to further searching without an independent exception to the warrant requirement. If the police have a reasonable suspicion to believe that a passenger is armed or constitutes a threat to their safety, they may conduct a limited frisk, or pat-down search for weapons only. In order to search for a passenger for any other purpose, they must have an independent justification. For example, if there is an independent reason to arrest a passenger like an outstanding warrant, the police may of course search that individual incident to that arrest.
But -absent consent or some other exception- a search of the passenger’s person is prohibited.
The Supreme Court has also told us that an occupant of a vehicle has standing, or the legal right, to challenge the legality of the stop. The protections end, there, however. The high court has also told us a passenger cannot raise a Fourth Amendment challenge to the search of another’s car.
If the police possess probable cause to believe the car contains contraband they may search the interior of that car, including containers belonging to passengers that could contain the object of the search.
Moreover, the passenger would have no legal right to challenge the search of the vehicle owned by another.