Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power

Justices appear divided over expanding police officers' traffic stop power
© Greg Nash

In a case that pits road safety against drivers’ privacy rights, the Supreme Court on Monday seemed split over whether police may lawfully pull over a car whose registered owner has a revoked license before an officer has confirmed the owner is behind the wheel.

Oral arguments in Kansas v. Glover centered on whether a Kansas police officer behaved lawfully when he stopped a car belonging to a suspended driver, Charles Glover, based on a hunch that Glover was operating the vehicle.

If a majority of justices sides with the officer, it could mean an increase in the number of similar traffic stops, including instances in which someone other than the car’s owner is driving.

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Counsel for the state of Kansas, joined by the Justice Department, told the justices the officer’s traffic stop was proper because it was based on a “common sense inference” that the owner and driver were one and the same. The officer had “reasonable suspicion,” they argued, meaning the stop did not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, seemed receptive to the government’s argument. He pushed back against Glover’s attorney’s suggestion that having a suspended license would make a person less likely to drive their car.

“I think the inference cuts the other way,” Roberts told Sarah Harrington, counsel for the driver. “We know somebody's already broken the law in some sense. He's got a suspended license.”

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But other justices appeared wary of adopting a blanket rule that police can make traffic stops based solely on the fact that a car owner’s license is suspended.

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Kagan told government attorneys that she interpreted their position to be that the only circumstance that matters is an assumption that the owner is the driver.

“I think what you're asking us to do is essentially to say that all [other factors] in this context become irrelevant,” Kagan said.

Sotomayor added that some jurisdictions are more law-abiding than others, and such distinctions would be papered over if the court embraced a single rule across the country.

“I suspect there are some towns in the United States where people don't break the law, no matter what,” she said, “That if your license got suspended, the police officer knows that in this jurisdiction, that presumption is not a good one. It doesn't work.”

“You’re asking us to have one presumption, without evidence,” Sotomayor added.

Though the case has potentially broad implications,  it could be decided on narrow, technical grounds. Prosecutors in Kansas trial court did not call the police officer to the stand, and the defendant did not cross-examine him, meaning the officer’s testimony was not submitted as evidence.

Even some justices who seemed inclined at Monday’s oral argument to side with the police took notice of the factual record's deficiencies.