Court upholds conviction from illegal traffic stop

(11-24) 20:50 PST San Francisco, CA (AP) --

The California Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the drug conviction of a man based on evidence found during an illegal traffic stop, in a case that had brought the issue of passenger rights before the nation's highest court.

The unanimous ruling came in the case of Bruce Brendlin, who was riding in a car that was pulled over in Yuba City after a deputy suspected something was wrong with the vehicle's registration. During the November 2001 stop, a Sutter County sheriff's deputy found equipment used to make methamphetamine in Brendlin's possession.

Brendlin challenged his conviction and four-year prison sentence, arguing that the drug evidence should have been suppressed at trial because it was found as the result of an illegal stop. The state had since conceded there was no basis to stop the car.

His appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last year that passengers, like drivers, have a Fourth Amendment right to challenge the legality of traffic stops.

Brendlin's case, however, was complicated by the existence of an outstanding arrest warrant against him, which prosecutors said would have justified a search even if passengers can challenge traffic stops. The U.S. justices sent Brendlin's case back to the state courts to sort out that issue.

In its ruling Monday, the California justices said authorities were allowed to use the evidence because the deputy had recognized Brendlin and discovered the warrant prior to the search.

"Despite the unlawfulness of the initial traffic stop, the facts of this encounter demonstrate that the drug paraphernalia found ... was not the fruit of the unlawful seizure," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the court. "The police searched defendant's person and the vehicle only after they discovered a valid outstanding warrant for his arrest."

And even though the deputy would not have learned of the warrant if it hadn't been for the illegal stop, the deputy had acted "in the absence of purposeful or flagrant police misconduct" in pulling over the car.

Brendlin's attorneys, Elizabeth Campbell and James Johnson, did not return after-hours calls seeking comment.

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