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Supreme Court hears arguments in auto passenger rights case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Monday in Brendlin v. California [ABA merit briefs], 06-8120, in which the Court must determine whether an automobile passenger, convicted on drug charges resulting from an illegal traffic stop, may contest the legality of the stop under the Fourth Amendment [text]. In 2001, Bruce Edward Brendlin was convicted in California of manufacturing methamphetamine based on evidence found in a car during a stop which the state later conceded was baseless. Brendlin moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures should be extended to protect passengers as well as drivers. California is one of only three states that does not allow passengers to assert such a defense. Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Scalia expressed concern regarding the implications of the state's argument that passengers are not seized during a stop. Justice Kennedy said, "I think indications from the bench are we just don't think passengers, a, are or, b, should feel free to leave when there's a traffic stop." The Court is expected to rule by the end of June.

The Supreme Court of California [official website] ruled against Brendlin [opinion, PDF] in 2006, holding that passengers are not automatically seized during a traffic stop, and allowed the evidence to be used in the trial. Brendlin is now backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP [advocacy websites], which fear that a judgment for the state would give police broad power to stop vehicles to search passengers. Brendlin's conviction may stand regardless of the Court's ruling, as at the time of arrest he was wanted for an unrelated parole violation, which itself may have justified the state's search. AP has more.

The Supreme Court also heard oral arguments in two other cases Monday. In United States v. Atlantic Research Corp [transcript, PDF; merit briefs], 06-562, the Court must decide whether owners of areas contaminated by hazardous materials that must be cleaned up under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) [text] can recover contribution from other responsible parties before they are subject to a government enforcement action. In Hinck v. United States [transcript, PDF; merit briefs], 06-376, the Court will decide whether tax courts have exclusive jurisdiction to review an IRS decision to deny a taxpayer’s request for interest abatement or whether district courts and Federal Claims Court also have such jurisdiction.

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