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In 2014, a man was arrested in Michigan on charges of possession of marijuana and meth, and given a two-to-10 year prison sentence. The case started after the man, Larry Mead, accepted a ride in a vehicle that got pulled over by police because it had an expired plate. The drugs that led to Mead’s criminal charges were in his backpack.

But now Mead’s conviction has been thrown out by the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that his rights were violated when police searched his backpack without his consent. In ruling that the search was unconstitutional, the Michigan Supreme Court also strengthened the legal standard for searching people during a traffic stop -- including passengers.

While this ruling only applies to the state of Michigan, all Americans are protected from unconstitutional searches thanks to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees every citizen's right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion, including police stops. If you believe your civil rights were violated by an illegal search, it’s important to get assistance right away from a civil rights attorney with experience handling illegal or improper searches.

Why Did the Michigan Supreme Court Rule Against the Backpack Search?

Over the years, legal safeguards have been put in place that allow law enforcement officers to interfere with a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights under limited circumstances. Those protections apply to someone pulled over for a minor traffic violation. In most instances, a police officer can’t search someone’s property unless they have a valid search warrant or arrest warrant, or can demonstrate to the courts that there was "probable cause" that the person had committed a crime.

In Mead’s case, he had accepted a ride from a woman he had just met, her vehicle got pulled over for a minor infraction by a sheriff’s deputy, and the deputy then looked inside Mead’s backpack after the driver consented to a search of her car. The deputy found marijuana and methamphetamine in Mead’s backpack, and he was eventually arrested, convicted as a fourth-offense habitual offender, and sentenced to prison. 

Mead challenged the search and argued that his rights had been violated, and the Michigan Supreme Court agreed. In ruling that the search was unconstitutional, the justices also decided that Mead had a legitimate expectation of privacy when he was in that car. 

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack noted that Mead was a passenger in the car and compared this situation to someone using a ride-sharing service. McCormick said police could not search a passenger based on consent given by an Uber or Lyft driver. 

The court unanimously ruled that:

“A person can get in a car without leaving his Fourth Amendment rights at the curb ... Because (the driver) did not have apparent common authority over the backpack, the search of the backpack was not based on valid consent and is per se unreasonable unless another exception to the warrant requirement applies.”

Did this Court Ruling Change Michigan Law?

Legal experts in Michigan called this a significant ruling that would likely impact police training methods across the state. The Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, which sets training guidelines at the state's basic training academies, has reviewed its curriculum in response to the court’s decision.

David Moran, a University of Michigan law professor, said this ruling helped correct an error in the law. He noted:

“The Fourth Amendment is all about common sense and reasonable expectations of privacy and social norms. It’s just common sense that the police will now need to ask passengers, ‘Mind if I search that bag?’”

The ruling also reinforces the importance of the Fourth Amendment as a constitutional guarantee of our right to privacy. What’s key for ensuring those rights work for you is for every American to understand their rights, and know when they can refuse to consent to a search. 

Not everyone who has a confrontation with the police will know if their Fourth Amendment rights have been violated, such as when an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment because it wasn’t supported by probable cause or a valid warrant. But if that’s what happened, any evidence obtained through that unlawful arrest, including a confession, will be kept out of the case.

That’s why if you were arrested after a search of your home, vehicle or other property, it’s important to immediately contact an attorney who understands the complex rules of search and seizure and will let you know if there were any problems with the search that could result in evidence being thrown out of court. An experienced criminal defense attorney should review the search and seizure procedures used in the case against you.

Experienced Michigan Civil Rights Attorneys Here to Help

All Michigan residents should have full protection of their civil rights under the law. If you or something you know believes your civil rights have been violated, including when police are conducting a search to gather evidence, we can help defend those rights. The Fourth Amendment exists to protect your rights in situations like this, and you have the right to refuse to provide consent for a search.

If you’ve been the victim of any kind of police misconduct, consult the attorneys at the Michigan Legal Center. We specialize in protecting our clients from illegal and improper searches, and with more than 20 years of experience and more than $200 million worth of legal cases, we’re here to defend the residents of Michigan. Call 1-800-961-8447 for your free consultation.

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