WI Supreme Court Rules Passengers Can Be Legally Searched If Driver Gives Consent

The Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled by a 4-3 vote, this past Tuesday, that a driver’s consent to search an automobile justifies a warrantless search of a passenger’s belongings inside the car.
Jennifer Matejka was one of several passengers traveling in a van that was stopped on March 16, 1997 by a state trooper in Portage County, WI. The officer obtained the driver’s consent to search the vehicle and he ordered everyone to vacate the van. Matejka left her jacket behind, and the officer searched it, finding drug paraphernalia, marijuana and LSD. She was charged with two counts of misdemeanor drug possession.
The arresting officer told the passengers that the driver, Anthony Miller, consented to the van’s search. The officer asked the passengers if they possessed any weapons or illegal drugs. Justice Diane Sykes wrote in her opinion that alerting the passengers to the search put them on a “similar notice.”
Matejka’s lawyer moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that the warrantless search violated her Fourth Amendment rights because she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the van and she never gave permission for police to search her belongings. The circuit court granted the motion, finding the search violated her Fourth Amendment protections, but the court of appeals reversed the circuit court ruling and the supreme court agreed with the court of appeals.
“Matejka’s jacket pockets were certainly capable of containing drugs, guns, or other contraband,” Justice Sykes wrote. “Significantly here, the consent to search was not limited in any way by Miller or Matejka. Thus, the officer’s search of Matejka’s jacket was well within the proper scope of the consent to search in this case and was therefore reasonable.”
For more information, please contact Keith Stroup, NORML Executive Director at (202) 483-5500.