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Supreme Court clarifies police power in traffic stops

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Supreme Court clarifies police power in traffic stops

The Supreme Court on Monday held it does not violate the Fourth Amendment for a police officer to pull over a car because it is registered to a person with a revoked license, so long as the officer does not have reason to believe someone other than the owner is driving the car.  

“We hold that when the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver the vehicle, the stop is reasonable,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

The case dates back to a simple traffic stop in April 2016. While on patrol in Douglas County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Mehrer pulled over Charles Glover’s 1995 Chevy pickup after running the truck’s plates and finding Glover had a revoked license.

Glover, who was convicted of a misdemeanor for being a habitual violator, admits that he was driving with a revoked license, but says the stop never should have happened because Mehrer did not have reasonable suspicion to pull him over.

In facts stipulated at a suppression hearing before the trial court, Mehrer said he pulled Glover over because he “assumed” the person driving the car was the car’s registered owner. He did not give any other details about the circumstances surrounding the stop, such as the time of day, weather conditions, or how often people whose licenses are revoked drive in the area.

After the state courts flipped back and forth on whether the stop was constitutional, the Kansas Supreme Court eventually sided with Glover.

In a 10-page opinion for the eight-justice majority, Thomas wrote “common sense” supports a police officer’s inference that the person driving a car is its registered owner. The George H. W. Bush appointee noted studies have found people often continue driving even after having their license revoked or suspended, posing a risk to public safety. 

Citing court precedent, he dismissed arguments from Glover and a dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor that the stop was invalid because Mehrer did not base his inference that Glover was driving the car on his training and experience.

“The inference that the driver of a car is its registered owner does not require any specialized training,” Thomas wrote. “Rather, it is a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.”

At the same time, Thomas did note the case might have turned out differently if Mehrer had information suggesting Glover was not the one driving the car. For example, if an officer ran the plates of a car and found it was registered to a man in his 60s, but the driver was a woman in her 20s, it would make the inference less reasonable. 

In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote the key point in the case for her was the circumstances by which Glover lost his license. 

As Kagan noted, Kansas generally revokes a person’s license only for driving-related offenses, making it more reasonable for officers in that state to assume they might be willing to violate traffic laws again. The situation would be different, Kagan wrote, if Glover’s license was merely suspended, which Kansas does for a host of other reasons, like failing to pay child support. 

“Indeed, several studies have found that most license suspensions do not relate to driving at all: what they most related to is being poor,” Kagan wrote. “So the good reason the court gives for thinking that someone with a revoked license will keep driving — that he has a history of disregarding driving rules — would no longer apply.” 

Sotomayor was the lone dissent in the case, saying the holding goes against “settled doctrine” of the court and lowers the bar on traffic stops. 

“In upholding routine stops of vehicles whose owners have revoked licenses, the court ignores key foundations of our reasonable-suspicion jurisprudence and impermissibly and unnecessarily reduces the state’s burden of proof,” Sotomayor wrote. 

Glover is represented by Goldstein & Russell attorney Sarah Harrington, who did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Kansas Attorney General’s Office also did not immediately return a request for comment.

Harry Sandick, a partner with the firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, said the court’s decision is relatively narrow and fact-specific, but offers another guide point as lower courts and officers in the field navigate what is and is not allowed under the Fourth Amendment.

“If you are charting a Fourth Amendment course, you can use these stars together to chart a course,” Sandick said in an interview. “So this is another star.” 

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