Pennsylvania Criminal Law: Passenger’s Legal Rights During Traffic Stops in Philadelphia

What are the rights of passengers in cars that are stopped by police during traffic stops? Passengers are often charged with drug possession or dealing and illegal gun possession after a search of a car or a search of personal belongings inside the car.

For example, during a traffic stop in Philadelphia, an officer directs everyone in the car to step out of the car. When the front seat passenger steps out of the car, he drops a bag of cocaine on the ground. The passenger is arrested and charged with drug possession.

This scenario is pretty common in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Delaware, Chester and Montgomery. Those charged with crimes during these kinds of traffic stops often want to know whether they will be able to get evidence suppressed. The most common issues in these cases are:

  1. whether an officer can order a passenger to exit a vehicle,
  2. whether an officer can pat down a passenger, and
  3. whether an officer can search a passenger’s personal items.

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Yes. During a traffic stop, a police officer may order any passengers to exit the car. This was established in Maryland v. Wilson, a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court case, which held: “an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop.” So, a passenger drops anything illegal like drugs, during or after exiting the car, the passenger may be arrested and charged with a crime. In addition, an officer can even order the occupants of a car to stay in the car and put their hands in the air. This is true even if the officer has no basis to suspect criminal activity.

Related: Car Searches in Philly Drug/Gun Cases, Legal Rights of the Accused


It depends. During a traffic stop, an officer can conduct a brief pat down of a passenger if the officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. During this encounter, the officer isn’t allowed to reach into pockets or otherwise search the person.

For example, during a traffic stop in Delaware County, the officer instructs the driver and passenger to step out of the car. The officer cannot conduct a pat down of the passenger unless the officer has reasonable suspicion that the passenger has engaged in or is about to engage in criminal activity.


It depends. An officer is allowed to search a passenger’s personal items if the officer has probable cause to believe that an illegal item is located in the passenger’s items. Once an officer has probable cause that a crime has been committed, the officer can search anything in the car that could reasonably contain the evidence. It doesn’t matter if the item being searched belongs to the driver or the passenger.

For example, during a traffic stop, the officer sees a bag of white powder sticking out of a bag next to the driver. Now, the officer has probable cause that the car contains illegal drugs. As a result, the officer can search any item inside the car that might contain drugs.

FAQ: Can police legally search a passenger in a car?

1. Only if the officer has probable cause that illegal contraband will be found on the passenger or in the passenger’s personal items. 2. An officer can search a passenger during the passenger’s arrest. This is known as a search incident to arrest. 3. An officer may search a passenger if the passenger consents to being searched.

FAQ: What’s the best way to beat a criminal charge for guns or drugs?

Fighting drug or gun charges requires looking at the following. 1. Did the police violate constitutional laws which could result in suppression of evidence and dismissal of the case? 2. Are there any legal challenges, such as statute of limitations or speedy trial issues? 3. Investigate facts that support a lack of knowledge or possession.

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