The U.S. Constitution requires police to meet tight standards for when and why they can search you, your belongings and the place where you live. State courts, too, including Michigan’s Supreme Court, strive to lawfully uphold this general principle, which sometimes has surprising results stemming from difficult and seemingly strange cases.

An interesting example arose late last year in Cedar Creek Township, about 45 minutes northwest of Grand Rapids.

Passenger in crash does not agree to a search

On the early evening of Aug. 30, an SUV overturned on U.S. 131. According to the county prosecutor, the driver had fallen asleep and lost control of the vehicle. Among the debris spilled by the crash a state trooper found hypodermic needles containing a clear substance.

The trooper asked the driver of the SUV if he could search the vehicle and the driver gave permission. The trooper also asked a passenger to allow a search of him and his belongings, and the passenger said no, the trooper did not have the passenger’s permission.

When the trooper searched the vehicle, found a backpack containing crystal methamphetamine and a glass pipe. The backpack turned out to belong to the passenger, who police charged with possession of methamphetamine.

State Supreme court rules in 2007 and 2019

Twelve years before, the Michigan Supreme Court had ruled that a passenger could not challenge a search of the car carrying them.

But only four months before the Cedar Creek crash, in April 2019, Michigan’s highest court reversed the previous ruling. They wrote that if someone charged with a crime shows they have good reasons to expect a right to privacy, “the expectation of privacy must be one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

Prosecutor calls off the charges for good

The Wexford County Prosecutor dismissed the charges against the passenger, “with prejudice” and issued a “nolle prosequi.” This means the county formally declared they were not going to pursue any charge against the passenger on this matter, and that the case was abandoned permanently.

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