U.S. Supreme Court

Rare Unanimity in Traffic Stop Case


The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision yesterday allowing a passenger to challenge a traffic stop was unusual.

It represented “an atypical moment of unanimity for the court in a case concerning the rights of criminal defendants,” according to Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times.

In 20 decisions concerning criminal procedure or habeas corpus, the court has split 5-4 in nine decisions and was unanimous in only six, although the justices sometimes advanced different reasoning.

Writing for the court in the case, Justice David H. Souter said a police stop is a “seizure” of a passenger as well as the driver, so both can challenge a stop under the Fourth Amendment.

“A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver,” he wrote. “No passenger would feel free to leave.”

The opinion is Brendlin v. California, No. 06-8120 (PDF).

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