Drivers Cannot Consent to Search Passenger Belongings

Since 2007, Michigan law held that when a police officer received consent from the driver to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, that search permitted the officer to search the passenger’s belongings as well.

For example, let's say that a passenger had their own backpack or briefcase in a car. Police often request to search a car with they suspect something is up. When they do, they usually do not have the right to search.

Question of Consent for Search and Seizure

Police would request consent of the driver since they are typically the owner of the car. If the driver consented, police possessed the right to search the whole car, including any passenger belongings. Michigan Courts reasoned that passengers did not have a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in the passenger compartment of a vehicle that wasn’t their own.

But the law in Michigan regarding a passenger’s privacy rights finally changed to a much more reasonable and practical stance: A passenger holds a right to privacy of their own items, despite being located in a another vehicle.

People vs. Mead

It sounds very reasonable and yet, that principle was not officially Michigan law until April 10, 2019. This is when the Michigan Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of People v. Mead.

Mead was a passenger in which the driver consented to a search. Law enforcement searched Mead’s backpack against his objection. The Court determined the search unconstitutional and suppressed the drug evidence found inside. Furthermore, the amended search and seizure law makes perfect sense.

How Michigan Search and Seizure Law Changed

This ruling will change how law enforcement seeks to obtain consent. They must now get it from everyone in the car. However, everyone may not give it. They will have to make a judgment call about what they can search and what they cannot. An error could lead to the suppression of evidence illegally procured.

In my experience, the best results in drug cases, like this one, come from fighting law enforcement searches and seizures. Remember: a police search and seizure, without a search warrant, is illegal unless a search warrant exception applies (like consent). Now, Michigan police must gain consent from everyone, and not just the driver.
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