On April 22nd, 2019, the Michigan Supreme Court released its opinion in People v Mead, ___ Mich ___ (2019) holding that a passenger in a motor vehicle has standing to challenge a police search of his personal property under the Fourth Amendment. This decision overrules People v LaBelle, 478 Mich 891 (2007) which previously barred passengers from contesting a search when the driver had already given law enforcement permission to search the vehicle.
In May 2014, Defendant Larry Mead was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over by Jackson Police due to an expired plate. As the police officer approached the vehicle to speak to the driver, he noticed that Mead was clutching a black backpack in his lap in the passenger seat. The police officer asked the driver to step out of the car and, after talking outside of Mead’s earshot, obtained permission to search the vehicle. Mead was subsequently asked to leave the vehicle and he complied but left the backpack on the passenger floorboard before exiting. The police officer searched the backpack and discovered a digital scale, prescription pills, 9.8 grams of marijuana and 4.03 grams of methamphetamine. Mead was charged with possession of methamphetamine, a felony offense in the State of Michigan.
In the circuit court, Mead filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine found in the backpack on the basis that the search was an illegal warrantless search under the Fourth Amendment. The police officer did not get the explicit consent of the driver to search the backpack and the defendant was never asked for permission. The officer admitted at the suppression hearing that he believed the backpack belonged to Mead because he clutched it in his lap. Certainly, the search of the backpack was illegal because it did not fit into any exception to the warrantless search rule such as consent. However, the trial court relied on the precedent in People v Labelle that precluded passengers from challenging the search of the vehicle because they had no standing for a Fourth Amendment claim. If the driver consented to the search of the vehicle, according to the judge, then any personal property of the passengers left behind is fair game for a search. The motion to suppress was denied, the defendant was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to serve 2 to 10 years in prison.
The case had a lengthy procedural history on appeal. The conviction was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals, but the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Court of Appeals to determine if the facts in this case are distinguishable from the facts in People v Labelle. Again, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and determined that Labelle applied here because no other grounds other than the driver’s consent justified the search. This matter was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court for a second time to decide if the backpack search ran afoul of the Fourth Amendment.
Under Labelle, a passenger does not have a legitimate “expectation of privacy” in someone else’s vehicle. If a defendant does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy, then there is no standing to make a Fourth Amendment challenge. A passenger could not expect to have an area of control when they are riding in another person’s car. However, the Michigan Supreme Court explicitly overruled Labelle and announced a new Fourth Amendment standard, specifically:
“[A] person – whether she is a passenger in a vehicle, or a pedestrian, or a homeowner, or a hotel guest – may challenge an alleged Fourth Amendment violation if she can show under the totality of the circumstances that she had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched and that her expectation of privacy was on that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.” Slip op at 7.
The high court further held that Mead had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his backpack (which he asserted by clutching it tightly) and that society could recognize his privacy interest in that bag as reasonable. Therefore, Mead has standing to challenge the warrantless search and his conviction was vacated.
While this decision is very defense-friendly in that it expands the boundaries of Fourth Amendment protection, its application is dependent on very subjective standards. Does a passenger have the same expectation of privacy in his or her container if it was in the driver’s trunk instead of his or her lap? Who decides what society is willing to recognize as reasonable? If a passenger is going to assert a privacy interest in a bag or purse, then the facts of the case should support that the passenger was enforcing this interest. For example, if the police officer asks a passenger to exit the vehicle, then he or she should try to hold or carry that bag instead of leaving it behind. If the police officer orders the bag to be left behind, then the passenger should vocalize his or her ownership in that bag and refuse consent to search it. Failure to enforce your rights on the scene can prejudice a Fourth Amendment challenge in a future suppression hearing.
Consent to search a home, vehicle or container can only come from the person who has the authority to give it. If the passenger asserts a clear ownership interest in a personal property item, then the driver lacks the credentials to permit the police officer to rummage through it. Protect your rights at all times before you unwittingly forfeit them in a future criminal prosecution.