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The issue of a passenger’s privacy rights during a police traffic stop was addressed by the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Commonwealth v. Torres.

In that case, police stopped a driver for speeding. The driver provided the officer with his license and registration. The officer confirmed that both the license and registration were valid. However, instead issuing a ticket and allowing the driver to proceed on his way, the officer began questioning the car’s passenger.

The questioning ultimately lead to the discovery of drugs and charges being brought against both the driver and the passenger.

After being convicted, the defendants appealed first to the Appeals Court and then to the SJC. One key issue in the case was the rights of a car’s passenger at the time of a traffic stop. The SJC ruled that a passenger has a greater right to privacy during such a stop.

According to the SJC,

a routine traffic stop “began to change character when [after verifying the driver’s license and registration] the trooper decided to go to the back of the automobile to interrogate [the passenger].” 

Commonwealth v. Torres, 424 Mass. 153, 157 (1977).

This is because,

the passenger “could reasonably harbor a higher expectation of privacy.  [The driver], not [the passenger], had committed the speeding violation, and a passenger…in the absence of his own individual misbehavior or suspicious conduct, could expect that the formalities involved in the traffic stop would take place solely between the driver and the trooper…There also can be no doubt that, at the time when the trooper focused his attention on [the passenger], both [the driver and the passenger] were seized and could continue to be seized until some indeterminate future time.  A person has been ‘seized’ by a police officer ‘if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave….Reasonable persons in the position of [the driver and passenger] would not necessarily know that [the driver] had satisfactorily complied with the reason for the stop, and they would not feel free to walk away while the trooper persisted in questioning them…Further, because the defendants had been seized, the interrogation of [the passenger] could not…be upheld on the line of cases that permit police examination of a person (including a request for identification) that is consensual in nature.”

Id.

Once a person is considered “seized” or “in custody” officers must advise him of his Miranda rights before beginning any type of interrogation. Failure to provide such a warning, could result in the exclusion of any evidence obtained due to the interrogation.