The decision will give law enforcement broader latitude, but the majority stressed that it was narrow in scope, and closely tied to Kansas law and the facts in the case at hand.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said the Fourth Amendment allows a law enforcement officer to make an investigative stop when he has a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting criminal activity.
“The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness” of the officer’s inferences, Thomas wrote. He emphasized what he called the “narrow scope” of the holding. He said, for instance, that if an officer knows that the registered owner is in his 60s, but observes that the driver is in her mid-20s, those additional facts might “dispel reasonable suspicion.”
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed with the majority, but wrote separately to stress that that the state of Kansas hardly ever revokes a license except for “serious and repeat offenses.”
“In this strange case,” Kagan said, “there is but a single, simple fact: A police officer learned from a state database that a car on the road belonged to a person with a revoked license.”
“Given that revocations in Kansas nearly always stem from serious or repeated driving violations, I agree with the Court about the reasonableness of the officer’s inference,” she wrote. “A person with a revoked license has already shown an willingness to flout driving restrictions.” She noted that Kansas and many other states suspend licenses for matters having nothing to do with road safety, such as failing to pay parking tickets, court fees or child support.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented alone.
“The consequence of the majority’s approach is to absolve officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver where feasible,” she wrote. “But that is precisely what officers ought to do — and are more than capable of doing.”
“Although Justice Kagan’s rare concurring opinion paints today’s ruling as being limited to the idiosyncrasies of Kansas state law, it remains to be seen whether that’s more of a prediction or an aspiration,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
“It’s not hard to imagine lower courts running with the majority’s subtle but significant shift in analyzing whether police officers had reasonable suspicion justifying a traffic stop in other contexts unrelated to whether the owner’s license had been suspended — which, as Justice Sotomayor warned in her dissent, could make it that much harder for individuals to demonstrate that many traffic stops weren’t justified.”
Court precedent holds that under the Fourth Amendment, officers can make an investigatory stop if they have reasonable suspicion. At issue in this case is whether a computer check that revealed the owner of a car has a revoked license is “reasonable” under the Constitution even if the officer did not know who was driving.
Deputy Mark Mehrer ran the license plate of a pickup truck in Kansas in 2016 even though he had not observed any traffic violations. The search revealed that the truck was registered to Charles Glover Jr., whose license had been revoked.
The officer pulled over the car and issued Glover a ticket. Glover challenged the stop, arguing that it violated his Fourth Amendment rights because there was no reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity. The Kansas Supreme Court suppressed the evidence, ruling in favor of Glover.
Kansas asked the Supreme Court to take up its appeal arguing that Mehrer relied upon a “common-sense” understanding that a registered owner was “likely to be driving again” and “warranted additional investigation.”
The Department of Justice sided with Kansas in the case, arguing that while the Fourth Amendment “asks police officers to be reasonable,” it does not ask them “to set aside common sense when they step into the patrol car.”
But Glover’s lawyers insisted that the officer would need something more — such as a traffic violation or a statistical analysis — to support the officer’s assumption or a slippery slope could develop.
“In an ordinary case, it would be relatively easy for an officer to establish reasonable suspicion that a car is or is not being driven by its unlicensed owner, but the officer and the state have to do at least that minimal amount of work before they can initiate the seizure,” Sarah Harrington, Glover’s lawyer, told the justices.
She was supported by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who said a win for Kansas, allowing a bright line rule, would “erode the liberty of all drivers (and their passengers) who share or borrow cars registered to someone with a suspended or revoked license.”
The group also noted that sometimes a license is revoked not because of traffic safety but because of missed child support payments, unpaid court debts or other infractions “unrelated to traffic safety.”