Under the right circumstances, the police can search the occupants of a vehicle if the driver commits a traffic violation, the Second Circuit has ruled in a case that reverses the district court's order suppressing a seized firearm.
The case is United States v. Stewart, decided on January 8. The police saw a taxi cab encroaching on a sidewalk. The stopped the cab and saw that the passenger was trying to hide something. So they made the passenger, Stewart, exit the car. That's when he told the police, "Take it easy, officers; I only have a little thirty-eight." That "little 38" allows the Court of Appeals to clarify the law on traffic stops and searches under the Fourth Amendment.
The question is whether the police needed "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion" to stop the car. The trial court held that the police had no right to search the car because they did not have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, as "a traffic violation for infringing on an intersection does not qualify as 'criminal activity."
The Court of Appeals disagrees. The Court notes that "We have held repeatedly that a traffic stop based on a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation comports with the Fourth Amendment." Federal courts around the country agree, but defendant's lawyer finds a case from the Sixth Circuit which arguably suggests that probable cause and not merely reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation is necessary to stop (and if necessary) search the car. This distinction may sound insignificant to non-lawyers, but in the world of criminal defense, it's a world of difference, as probable cause is the harder standard for the police to meet. Declining to follow the Sixth Circuit, the Second Circuit holds firm to its rule that reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation is enough for the police to make a traffic stop.
This is bad news for defendant Stewart. After he was freed up by the trial court upon winning the suppression hearing, the trial court has to hold another hearing under the legal standard set forth by the Court of Appeals. For the government to win the suppression hearing and use the gun at trial against the defendant, the police have to show that they merely had reasonable suspicion that the cab committed a traffic violation.