Utah High Court Upholds Passenger Check for Warrants

State v. Martinez, (Utah 2017)

George Martinez was a passenger in car stopped for a vehicle registration violation. The officer asked both the driver and Martinez for identification. After discovering the driver had a valid license and no warrants, the officer did a check for warrants on Martinez and found he had an outstanding warrant. The time to check for warrants for Martinez was between one and five seconds. The officer arrested Martinez within three minutes of the initial stop.

During a search incident to arrest, the officer found a pipe with methamphetamine in Martinez’s pocket. Martinez asked the court to suppress the drug evidence, claiming that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he asked Martinez for identification. The Utah Supreme Court held that the officer’s brief extension of the traffic stop to check for warrants on the passenger did not violate his rights.

The court cited substantial precedent from other courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, holding that the risks associated with traffic stops are greater when there are passengers and those risks justify warrants checks on passengers: “Because passengers present a risk to officer safety equal to the risk presented by the driver, an officer may ask for identification from passengers and run background checks on them as well” (United States v. Rice, 483 F.3d 1079 (10th Cir. 2007)). In Rodriguez v. United States (135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015)), the Supreme Court stated because “traffic stops are ‘especially fraught with danger to police officers,’” an officer may “need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely.”

The Utah high court held that “running Martinez’s background was a ‘negligibly burdensome precaution’” that did not unreasonably extend the traffic stop. Moreover, the officer didn’t order or compel Martinez to identify himself; he politely asked for identification and Martinez cooperated. Using the language of consent, being professionally polite and quickly performing the check for warrants persuaded the court that the evidence should not be suppressed. Another reminder for officers to “talk nice, think mean.”

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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