Recently there has been a lot of debate over what a passenger’s rights are during a traffic stop. In the case of State v. Bacome, this was made clear through the judge’s disagreement over the issue. To better understand this complex question, we’ll take a closer look at the specifics of this suit.
In the previously mentioned case, the judges decided in a 2-1 vote that police need “reasonable and articulable belief that their safety is in danger” before they instruct a passenger to exit a vehicle. Under these particular set of circumstances, the local police department suspected both the defendant and his passenger to be either drug users or sellers. On the night of the incident, officers tailed the SUV Bacome was driving, which was owned by the passenger. The police lost the vehicle in traffic so they returned to a point closer to the defendant’s residence and waited. According to the officers, the passenger was not wearing his seatbelt, so that justified the traffic stop. The officers then claimed that Bacome leaned forward as though placing something under the seat, which they said gave them the authority to order both driver and passenger out of the SUV. Once the police began searching, they found hidden vials of crack and other drug-related paraphernalia.
Let’s review: the vehicle was stopped because the passenger was presumably not wearing his seatbelt. As a result, the SUV was pulled over and the driver seemed to be putting something under the seat. Then both driver and passenger were order to exit and the vehicle was searched. Remember now that this was simply a routine traffic stop—whether the police suspected the men of dealing drugs or not, there was no other evidence to justify the evacuation. In 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in State v. Smith that the police must have “specific and articulable facts” that substantiates their belief that danger was present in order to ask the passenger to get out of the car. That was not to case here and the appellate court judges agreed. The seatbelt was an excuse for the officers to act on a mere hunch of drug activity.
Despite the fact that this case will more than likely end up in the state Supreme Court, it still highlights the importance of probable cause to order a passenger to evacuate a vehicle. In a circumstance like this where your rights have been infringed upon, you want to seek the assistance of a skilled attorney well-versed in New Jersey law. Call me, David C. Barry Attorney at Law if you have found yourself in a similar situation; (732) 238-8686. Your best course of action is a strong legal defense.