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Mich. Supreme Court changes rule for vehicle searches

A Michigan State Police file photo.
Michigan State Police

The Michigan Supreme court ruled unanimously on Monday that a passenger in a car may challenge a police search of his personal property found in the vehicle. And it overruled its  2007 decision in People v. LaBelle that barred passengers from challenging a search of a car in which they were traveling. 

In this week's decision, People v. Mead,  the Court wrote, "To invoke the Fourth Amendment's protections, a defendant must first establish that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched. Moreover, the expectation of privacy must be one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable."

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The Court ruled that normally a passenger does not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in someone else's car. But the Court found in this case that the passenger, Larry Mead, did have a legitimate expectation of privacy in a backpack that the evidence demonstrated belonged to him.

The Court wrote, "A passenger's personal property is not subsumed by the vehicle that carries it for Fourth Amendment purposes. A person can get in a car without leaving his Fourth Amendment rights at the curb."

According to the Court's opinion, Mead was a passenger in a vehicle that the police pulled over for an expired license plate. The officer observed Mead clutching a backpack on his lap in the passenger seat.  Both Mead and the driver independently told the officer they had just met, and she was giving him a ride.  The officer obtained the driver's consent to search her person and the car. The officer then asked Mead to get out of the car. Mead left his backpack on the passenger floorboard as he exited. The officer then searched the passenger side of the vehicle, including the backpack, and found methamphetamines, other drugs, and drug paraphinalia. Mead was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine. The officer testified that he believed the backpack belonged to Mead, but that he did not ask for his consent to its search.

The Court ruled the warrentless search of Mead's backpack was unreasonable and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. It said the facts of the case showed a reasonable police officer would not have believed the driver had the authority to consent to a search of the passenger's backpack. 

Justice Megan Cavanagh did not participate in the ruling because the Court considered the case before she assumed her office.

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.