Court Battles

Supreme Court sides with police in traffic stop case

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Kansas police officer acted lawfully when he stopped a car whose owner’s license was suspended before confirming it was in fact the owner behind the wheel.

In an 8-1 opinion, the justices said the officer’s assumption that the owner was driving was reasonable, given the officer had no reason to think the vehicle was being operated by someone else.

“We hold that 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 majority in a case that pit road safety against drivers’ privacy rights.

The ruling was a defeat for defendant Charles Glover, who had argued the traffic stop violated the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure and could encourage similar police stops across the country, even in cases where someone other than the car’s owner is driving.

But the majority said that traffic stops carried out after a license plate check reveals that an owner has a revoked license — as happened in Glover’s case — are reasonable, even if the driver’s identity is not confirmed in advance.

“The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness of Deputy Mehrer’s inference,” the majority wrote, referring to Deputy Mark Mehrer, who stopped Glover’s Chevrolet pickup truck in 2016.

“Studies demonstrate what common experience readily reveals,” the majority added. “Drivers with revoked licenses frequently continue to drive and therefore to pose safety risks to other motorists and pedestrians.”

Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a separate concurring opinion to emphasize that the decision should be read narrowly, noting that other traffic stops with constitutionally relevant distinctions may not “wind up in the same place.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying the majority opinion misapplied prior Supreme Court search-and-seizure rulings in a manner that “unnecessarily reduces the state’s burden of proof.”

“The consequence of the majority’s approach is to absolve officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver where feasible,” Sotomayor wrote. “But that is precisely what officers ought to do — and are more than capable of doing.

But some legal experts said the ruling did not mark a dramatic shift in the justices’ approach to search-and-seizure cases.

“It’s a straightforward decision that doesn’t break new theoretical ground,” said Orrin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The opinion in this case, Kansas v. Glover, reverses and remands a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that found the officer had stopped Glover without reasonable suspicion.

Updated at 12:09 p.m.

Tags Clarence Thomas Elena Kagan Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sonia Sotomayor
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