What are your rights as a passenger in a vehicle in Washington State

Last weekend Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon and her husband were arrested in Atlanta by a Georgia State Trooper. Apparently the Trooper pulled over a silver Ford Fusion for weaving in and out of lanes ( am I the only one who thinks it’s awesome that Reese Witherspoon is in a Ford Fusion by the way. But I digress). So the Trooper pulls over this vehicle.

Jim Toth who is Reese’s husband is driving. He starts to get investigated for possible DUI. The usual stuff, field sobriety tests, etc. But during the investigation while the Trooper and Toth are outside the vehicle Reese starts to hang out of her passenger window making comments to the Trooper. At one point even getting out of the vehicle and pulling the celebrity card saying, “Do you know who I am.” After her husband was arrested for DUI she was warned by the Trooper to stay in her car, she got out and was arrested for disorderly conduct. There was some more colorful language used by her but that is the gist of it.

So this got my thinking. What are your rights as a passenger in a vehicle if your driver is being investigated for a crime? Obviously Reese was not within her right to get out of the vehicle, harass the Trooper, and disobey his orders. So what can you do and what can’t you do.

First passengers are not required to show a drivers license or any other form of picture identification to a police officer in a vehicle stopped for an infraction. See generally State v. Rankin, 108 Wn.App. 948 (2001), and State v. Barwick, 66 Wn.App. 706 (1992). So in this case if you’re in Reese’s position and your driver is being contacted by law enforcement for weaving or allegedly committing a traffic infraction and the police ask for your license or identification you do not have to provide it.

Secondly passengers are also free to not respond to a police officer’s question. See Rankin. In other words if your driver is being investigated for something. The police come to you to ask you questions. You don’t have to respond or you can politely decline to answer.

Thirdly a passenger can leave the vehicle or scene and walk away provided there are no Officer safety concerns. See State v. Mendez, 137 Wn.2d 208 (1999). For example if you’re a passenger in a vehicle and your driver gets arrested for a minor vehicle offense you can get out of the vehicle and walk away. In this Mendez case that is exactly what the passenger did. He got out of the vehicle began to run away. Police chased after him, detained him, and searched and found a marijuana pipe. The Washington Supreme Court held that without any concerns for Officer safety, without any articulable and reasonable suspicion he was committing a crime there was insufficient PC to arrest.

Now this is a little bit different than what happened to Reese Witherspoon. If she was in Washington State should would have been within her right to get out of the vehicle. However when she approached the Trooper, disobeyed his requests to get back in the vehicle then obviously that is an Officer safety issue and the Trooper was within his right to control the scene and place her under arrest.

Additionally I have represented clients on a DUI where their passenger became unruly, disruptive of the investigation, and disobeyed Officer orders. In my opinion as a Seattle DUI Attorney this is the stupidest thing you can do for your driver. There is nothing that you can say or do that will change the arresting Officers mind. But you can make things worse for both the driver and yourself by acting like an idiot. Hey I get it. Your significant other, relative, or friend is getting arrested for DUI. You’re upset, you’ve had a little too much to drink and you’re not thinking clearly. But under no circumstances should you approach the Officer and tell them to, “let the driver go,” or “were only a few blocks from home,” or question their evidence. That is not the time or place and you’re actually making it look worse for the driver by making excuses for them, or questioning the Officers job.

About the Author: Matthew Leyba is a Seattle DUI Lawyer in Washington State. His practice focuses on representing those accused of DUI and other traffic offenses. He is currently ranked as a Superb DUI Attorney in Seattle by Avvo, and rated as a Rising Star in the area of DUI Defense by both Super Lawyers Magazine and the Seattle Met Magazine. An honor less than 2.5% of all Attorneys receive.