The Supreme Court Rules: Passengers Beware

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The U.S. Supreme Court veered once again to the right on Monday while traveling down a familiar road in a case involving police searches of cars. By a 6-3 vote, the Justices ruled that if the police have probable cause to search a driver's car, they can also search the personal belongings of any passenger in the car without a warrant. The case involved a routine traffic stop in Wyoming during which police became suspicious after they spotted a syringe in the shirt pocket of the driver, which the driver admitted was for drug use. The police then searched the car, seized a passenger's purse on the backseat and found drugs in it. "This is a significant ruling," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "The decision breaks down an established distinction in the law between passengers and drivers, and marks a further erosion of privacy protections against police searches."

For many years, the Supreme Court has given police ever wider latitude to search drivers and cars for contraband without a warrant, to the point where drivers nowadays retain very few privacy protections against police searches. In prior cases, however, the court had managed to retain a distinction between searches of drivers and their cars and searches of passengers. "The court's assumption had been that a police stop was an interaction between the police and the driver," says Cohen, "and that passengers, as innocent bystanders, retained their reasonable expectations of privacy." Monday's decision breaks down the barrier. The message now is: Be careful not only when you drive but also with whom you drive.