A Kansas man lost his Fourth Amendment claim at the U.S. Supreme Court in a traffic-stop case that the government warned had great public safety implications while defense and other advocacy groups raised social justice and privacy concerns.
At issue was whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by initiating an investigative stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner has a revoked driver’s license.
“When the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the stop is reasonable,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the 8-1 majority in the search and seizure dispute.
The opinion, which Thomas described as narrow in scope, was issued on Monday. Remarkably, it’s Kansas’ third win at the high court this term. The state recently won a dispute over the insanity defense, and, before that, an immigration-related case. All three were argued over a four-week period last fall.
“The Court’s narrow ruling today reaffirmed that police officers can use common sense inferences when determining whether to conduct traffic stops,” said Scott Keller, chair of Baker Botts’ Supreme Court and Constitutional Law Practice. He filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National District Attorneys Association, urging the justices to rule for the state.
The decision further clarifies the scope of the Fourth Amendment for law enforcement officers in Kansas and around the country, said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
“Today’s ruling makes clear that the Fourth Amendment does not require the patrol officers who keep our streets and highways safe to suspend their common sense when they put on their uniforms,” Schmidt said. “As this deputy knew, and as the U.S. Supreme Court today confirmed, it is common sense to suspect the registered owner of a car is the person driving it, and that is sufficient to make a traffic stop to determine whether that reasonable suspicion is in fact correct.”
Goldstein & Russell partner Sarah Harrington, who represented the man who was stopped, Charles Glover, declined comment.
Strange, Narrow Case
A police officer pulled Glover over after running his truck’s license plate and seeing that the vehicle’s registered owner—Glover—had his license was revoked. But the officer didn’t do anything more than run the plate before pulling over the truck. He just assumed it was Glover driving.
That assumption isn’t enough to meet the Fourth Amendment’s reasonable suspicion standard, Glover argued.
Nearly all of the justices disagreed.
“The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness” of the Kansas officer’s inference, Thomas wrote for the court.
“The inference that the driver of a car is its registered owner does not require any specialized training,” Thomas added. “Rather, it is a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.”
Justice Elena Kagan concurred, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This case is “strange,” Kagan wrote, noting that the record is bare-bones and contains “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.” Ruling against Glover here, she observed, doesn’t mean that “cases with more complete records will all wind up in the same place.”
The “unusual nature” of the record “probably helped drive the decision,” said former federal prosecutor and white collar defense attorney Harry Sandick.
“On this fact,” the Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler partner said, “the inference drawn by the police—that the car was driven by its owner—seemed reasonable to eight of the nine Justices. It may be that on a different record, the outcome would be different.”
The Fourth Amendment’s “reasonable suspicion” standard “remains a fact-bound determination,” Sandick added. “This decision will be another star in the constellation of decisions that will guide officers, litigants and judges when interpreting the Fourth Amendment.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented. She said that, by “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.”
Kansas’s top court had ruled for Glover, finding the officer’s assumption that Glover was driving “was only a hunch and was unsupported by a particularized and objective belief.” State officials appealed to the Supreme Court, backed by the Trump administration.
Over a dozen states also lined up to support Kansas at the high court, claiming that “the ability of state officers to keep their streets safe” is at stake. They pointed to studies showing that, despite having their license suspended, many drivers continue to drive their vehicles.
An array of outside groups lined up behind Glover, too, observing that license suspensions “are concentrated in poor communities and disproportionately in communities of color.” Because there are fewer vehicles per household in those communities, drivers are more likely to borrow vehicles from friends or family.
Such communities are also subject to increased use of Automated License Plate Readers, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which raised concerns about automated policing techniques.
The case is Kansas v. Glover, U.S., 18-556, reversed and remanded 4/6/20.