When a police officer approaches a vehicle after a routine traffic stop, the officer always has the option of ordering the driver to leave the vehicle. That was decided by the United States Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Mimms nearly twenty years ago. But can the officer also order the passengers to leave the vehicle without at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity?
According to the Supreme Court, yes. In the recent decision of Maryland v. Wilson, seven of the nine Justices held that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers out of the vehicle until the stop is completed. In making that decision, the high court stated that a passenger may have a greater Fourth Amendment right to privacy than a driver; however, a passenger presents just as much danger to the officer as the driver does.
The court's opinion, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, noted that nearly 6,000 officers were assaulted, and eleven officers were killed, during traffic pursits and stops in 1994. "On the public interest side of the balance, the same weighty interest in officer safety is present regardless of whether the occupant of a stopped car is a driver or a passenger," said Rehnquist.
This "bright-line" rule now makes it clear that a police officer may order passengers out of a vehicle for no reason other than the safety of the officer. Of course, this procedure is not required, and an officer may wish to leave passengers in place when he or she feels that they pose no threat. Nevertheless, officers should take advantage of this rule whenever they believe that passengers present a danger to their safety: when in doubt, get them out!