Supreme Court Appears Ready to Rule for Police in Traffic-Stop Case
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday appeared to accept that it was reasonable for police to pull over a vehicle registered to someone with a suspended driver’s license despite their not knowing who was driving the vehicle at the time.
The case comes to the court from Kansas, where a sheriff’s deputy, Mark Mehrer, saw the petitioner’s pickup truck and ran a registration check. At the time, Mehrer was on a routine patrol, and the driver of the pickup had not committed a traffic violation.
The state’s database revealed the truck’s owner, Charles Glover, had a suspended license.
Mehrer later said he “assumed the registered owner of the truck was also the driver” and that he stopped the truck to find out. His assumption proved correct.
Mehrer cited Glover for habitual driving under a suspended license, leading to the driver’s conviction.
But Glover moved to suppress all the information Mehrer gained from the stop, claiming the stop was without cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The state of Kansas came to the deputy’s defense, arguing it could reasonably be inferred that a registered owner of a vehicle in the person driving it.
On appeal to the Kansas Court of Appeals, the state prevailed. The court said denying law enforcement officers the right to stop vehicles in these situations would seriously limit an officer’s ability to investigate traffic violations.
Grover appealed, and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in his favor, noting that the state has the burden of proving that any warrantless seizure is a reasonable one. Further, it said for reasonable suspicion to exist, the state must be able to show specific and articulable facts, that a crime is being, has been, or is about to be committed.
As to Mehrer’s owner-is-the-driver presumption, the court held this required the stacking of unstated assumptions without any further facts to support them.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the case could have a significant impact on when police may stop a motorist who has not otherwise broken the law.
Arguing for the state on Monday, Kansas solicitor General Toby Crouse said that Mehrer had exercised common sense when he stopped Glover’s truck.
“It would have been poor police work” to do otherwise, Crouse said.
Michael Huston, a lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department agreed.
“The purpose of reasonable suspicion is simply to conduct further investigation,” he said.
But Sarah Harrington, representing Glover, offered the justices a hypothetical. What if someone was borrowing Glover’s truck?
“There’s literally nothing they could do to avoid being seized,” she said.
A majority of justices appeared to agree with Kansas.
“Reasonable suspicion does not have to be based on statistics, it does not have to be based on specialized experience. As we’ve said often, it can be based on common sense,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said.
And Justice Stephen Breyer said he believed it was at least reasonable for an officer to suspect the registered driver was behind the wheel, even if his driver’s license was suspended.
So too did Justice Samuel Alito.
On the other side of the argument were Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who argued that it is in no way uncommon for people to lawfully drive vehicles that don’t belong to them.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chimed in wondering whether it might be more likely that the person behind the wheel was not the registered owner with the suspended license.
Kagan then went a step further, noting recent studies that have shown 50 percent of teenage drivers don’t carry their licenses with them all the time.
“Does that give the police officer the ability to stop every teenager that he sees?” she asked.
The case is Kansas v. Glover.
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