High Court Upholds Police Right to Stop Vehicles Without Suspicion of Crime

April 6, 2020 by Dan McCue
A police car at a crime scene in downtown Minneapolis. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Kansas deputy sheriff did not violate a motorist’s constitutional rights when he pulled over a truck owned by a driver with a revoked license.

The case stems from events that occurred April 28, 2016. It was on that afternoon that Deputy Mark Mehrer, while on a routine patrol for the Douglas County Kansas Sheriff’s Office, ran the plates of a 1995 Chevrolet pickup truck.

At the time Mehrer ran the plates, there was no obvious indication that the driver was breaking the law. Nor did Mehrer observe any traffic infractions.

However, the license plate check revealed the license of the registered owner of the truck, Charles Glover, Jr., had been revoked. Based on this information, Mehrer initiated a traffic stop.

Glover was indeed behind the wheel and he was charged and later tried for driving with a revoked license.

But Glover maintained his arrest was unlawful because Mehrer simply inferred the owner of the truck was behind the wheel, that he had no way of knowing this was true, and therefore lacked the reasonable suspicion of a crime required to pull the truck over.

His lawyer then filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized during the stop. The trial court granted that motion, but it was later reversed by the state court of appeals.

The case then moved to the Kansas Supreme Court, which reversed the appeals court ruling, holding Deputy Mehrer did indeed violate Glover’s rights under the Fourth Amendment by stopping him without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

But a majority of justices on Monday, led by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, ruled the state Supreme Court got the decision wrong.

Specifically, it said in the absence of any information negating the deputy’s inference that the vehicle’s owner was driving the truck, the investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate was perfectly reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Thomas was joined in the majority decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The justices sent the case back to the Kansas Supreme Court for furthering proceedings taking into account their opinion.

Justice Elena Kagan also filed a concurring opinion. which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined.

In that concurrence, they agreed that it is perfectly reasonable to assume the owner of a vehicle is the person driving it.

“Now, though, consider a wrinkle,” Kagan wrote. “Suppose you knew that the registered owner of the vehicle no longer had a valid driver’s license. That added fact raises a new question.

“What are the odds that someone who has lost his license would continue to drive? The answer is by no means obvious,” she continued. “You might think that a person told not to drive on pain of criminal penalty would obey the order—so that if his car was on the road, someone else (a family member, a friend) must be doing the driving. Or you might have the opposite intuition—that a person’s reasons for driving would overcome his worries about violating the law, no matter the possible punishment. But most likely (let’s be honest), you just wouldn’t know.

“Especially if you’ve not had your own license taken away, your everyday experience has given you little basis to assess the probabilities. Your common sense can therefore no longer guide you,” Kagan said.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the lone dissenter on the court, found the majority’s decision troubling.

“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,” she wrote.

“In an effort to uphold the conviction, the court destroys Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that requires individualized suspicion,” she concluded.

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