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Garrett Miller

This article provides a concise and clear understanding of your protections, from the right to remain silent to the nitty-gritty of search and detention laws. It’s the information you need to stand firm in your rights with confidence, without complicating things with legal complexities.

Generally speaking, you can understand a passenger as having largely the same rights as a driver who has been pulled over by the police, with a few notable extras reflecting the fact they may not be under any suspicion of wrongdoing. The following list is not comprehensive, but will give you a good basis of how to behave during a traffic stop, we will begin with the most important:

Navigating a Traffic Stop as a Passenger

It is important to remember that both drivers and passengers have rights when encountering a traffic stop. Whether the stop is for a minor traffic violation or a more serious alleged infraction, it falls under the protection of the Fourth Amendment, which safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that even as a passenger in Wisconsin, you are entitled to certain rights during such stops.

These rights exist to prevent an illegal search or arrest from taking place involving your motor vehicle. It is common to feel powerless when faced with authority figures, especially during traffic stops. Knowing your constitutional protections can help maintain fairness and restore balance in these situations.

These same rights also cover how long you may be detained by police and under what circumstances they can do so. Passengers should only be held for as long as necessary until the reason for the initial stop has been dealt with. If this detention exceeds reasonable time limits without any evidence of Criminal activity based on articulable suspicion, it could potentially result in legal action being taken.

The right to remain silent.

During a traffic stop, passengers hold the important right to remain silent. This vital constitutional privilege is safeguarded by the Fifth Amendment and serves to protect individuals from self-incrimination. As such, it grants you the option of not responding to any inquiries made by police officers that may imply your involvement in criminal activities.

You have full freedom in exercising this right simply by choosing not answer questions posed by law enforcement officials during a traffic stop – including those pertaining to your immigration status or presence in the country without proper documentation. In Wisconsin, there is no legal requirement for you to provide identification unless there are suspicions of criminal involvement on your part.

Protection Against Unreasonable Searches

During a traffic stop, it is crucial to know and exercise your rights. One such right granted by the Fourth Amendment in Wisconsin is protection against unreasonable searches for both drivers and passengers. In order to search you or your belongings, law enforcement must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

You are within your rights as a passenger to refuse any requests from an officer to conduct a search of yourself or personal items, including those stored out of sight in areas like glove boxes. Politely decline by stating clearly that you do not consent to a search. It’s important to note that while refusal may be stated firmly but politely, officers can still proceed with searching if they possess sufficient evidence indicating reasonable suspicion or hold a valid warrant.

Duration and Scope of Detention

During a traffic stop, it is important to take note of the duration of your detention. According to law enforcement regulations, officers are only allowed to hold you for a reasonable amount of time. The definition of “reasonable” varies depending on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding the situation.

If at any point during your detention you feel that it has exceeded a reasonable timeframe, you have every right to express this concern. It is crucially important in these situations to remain polite and calm when addressing the peace officer involved. Simply asking if you are free or able to leave can help clarify whether they have sufficient grounds for detaining you.

The right not to share information regarding a lack of documentation.

This can be understood as a subsection of the right to remain silent, but it is so critically important that a passenger in a traffic stop understand they have this right it warrants its own discussion.  It is possible that during a traffic stop, a police officer might pick up on queues that would lead them to believe the occupants of the pulled over vehicle lack legal documentation to lawfully be in the United States of America.  This could lead to a line of questioning in which an officer would demand or request identification on the part of the passenger.  In a routine stop related to a traffic violation, there is no reasonable grounds for the police to raise this line of questioning.  As the passenger, you are under no suspicion of wrongdoing, and as such do not need to answer any line of questions, provide any identification on request or demand, or provide proof of legal immigration status.  The police are not able to arrest you for simply refusing to identify yourself.  However, if you engage with the police officer and reveal any information regarding your status, this can be used by the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take legal action against you, including deportation should be found to be in the country illegally.  

Can passengers be detained in a traffic stop in Wisconsin?

A traffic stop for the purposes of the United States’ Constitution constitutes a “seizure,” as the vehicle and its occupants are necessarily under the authority of the police for the duration of the stop.  The Fourth Amendment provides Americans protection from unreasonable seizures, i.e. baseless interference by government authorities, and this extends to detainment by the police.

It begs the question then, given that a passenger in a stop for a traffic violation has violated no law, and generally speaking could not reasonably be suspected of violating a law simply based on the driver’s behavior, would the police forcing the passenger to remain in the vehicle for the duration of the stop qualify as an unreasonable seizure?  This interesting legal question has made its way to the highest legal authority in the country, the United States Supreme Court.  In Maryland v. Wilson, the Court balanced the rights of the passenger in a traffic stop to be free from unreasonable seizure, against the safety of the police officer making the stop.  The idea is that someone leaving the vehicle splits the officer’s attention, opening them up to a potentially dangerous situation in which they have to handle multiple angles.  

Ultimately the Court held that the immediate safety of the officer outweighed what they believed to be the minor infraction of liberty suffered by the passenger of the vehicle during a traffic stop, granting police the authority to detain the passenger for the duration of the stop.  Subsequent Circuit Court proceedings have solidified and expanded on this ruling.  More recently, US V. Williams saw the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unequivocally find that an officer can force a passenger to return to their vehicle during a traffic stop, and in 2009 the Supreme Court again upheld their ruling in Arizona v. Johnson.  As such you can be detained by the police during a traffic stop, even for a simple traffic violation.  

That being said, as being pulled over does qualify as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the initial stop must have been reasonably motivated by a grounded suspicion on the part of the police.  As you are being detained, you do have a right to challenge the lawfulness of the detainment at any point during the stop, keeping in mind to always do so politely.  You should be aware however that it is not terribly difficult for the police to justify a routine traffic stop, as any common traffic violation such as slightly speeding could serve as a lawful basis.

What should I do if I am arrested as a passenger during a traffic stop in Wisconsin?

The most important thing to do is contact a qualified Wisconsin criminal law attorney to advise you on your situation.  Each criminal proceeding has its own circumstances, and you will need good representation to navigate this process.  You should make a formal request at the time of your arrest to contact your attorney and should be allowed to do so via telephone.  

The second most important thing to do is refrain from making your situation worse by not remaining silent.  Always remember you have the right to remain silent, and beyond identifying yourself there is no requirement you communicate with the police.  You can only incriminate yourself by offering explanations or excuses, speaking to your attorney, and letting them communicate with the police on your behalf is always in your best interest.  Police are not allowed to continue a line of questioning after you have formally request an attorney in response to their questioning, but you can inadvertently waive this right by deciding to subsequently answer their questions.  

If the police can make a compelling argument that you were aware of your rights, and this will be the case if they have read you your Miranda rights at the point of your arrest, and you knowingly waived these rights by answering their questions, any information you provided them is admissible in your trial.

Request a consultation with an experienced Wisconsin criminal law attorney.  

The qualified Wisconsin criminal law attorneys at O’Flaherty Law are ready to fight for you in your criminal case.  We know the process and can help you reach a better outcome, advising you on when to fight and when to settle.  Call our office at (630) 324-6666, email, or schedule a consultation with one of our experienced Wisconsin lawyers today. You can also fill out our confidential contact form and we will get back to you shortly.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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