Under the Fourth Amendment, can a police officer pull over a vehicle merely because its registered owner has a suspended driver’s license, even if the officer is unsure whether that owner is driving?
This case asks whether a police officer has reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle if the officer knows only that the vehicle’s registered owner has a suspended driver’s license, but the officer is unsure whether the registered owner is driving the vehicle. Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, police officers may initiate brief stops of drivers who they reasonably suspect are committing a crime. In the present case, police deputy Mark Mehrer observed a moving vehicle and determined that the vehicle belonged to Charles Glover, who had a suspended license. Mehrer pulled over Glover’s vehicle after assuming that Glover was driving and thus violating the law. The State of Kansas argues that Mehrer had reasonable suspicion to stop Glover, because the Fourth Amendment allowed him to make the commonsense assumption that the driver of a vehicle owns that vehicle. Glover counters that the stop violated his Fourth Amendment right against illegal searches and seizures, because without that assumption, Mehrer had no reason to stop his vehicle. The outcome of this case has implications for drivers’ privacy, public safety, and the amount of discretion police officers possess in deciding when to stop a vehicle.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether, for purposes of an investigative stop under the Fourth Amendment, it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving the vehicle absent any information to the contrary.
On April 28, 2016, Deputy Mark Mehrer was on patrol when he saw a 1995 Chevrolet pickup truck drive by. Deputy Mehrer ran a check on the truck’s license plate number and discovered that Charles Glover, Jr., the registered owner of the vehicle, did not have a valid driver’s license. Deputy Mehrer neither observed any traffic violations, nor tried to confirm whether Glover was driving the truck. Nevertheless, Deputy Mehrer pulled the truck over, assuming that Glover was driving the truck without a valid license. Only once he stopped the vehicle did Deputy Mehrer confirm that Glover was indeed the one driving the car. The State of Kansas thus charged Glover with driving as a habitual violator. Glover responded by moving to suppress the evidence found in Glover’s vehicle, arguing that Deputy Mehrer did not have the reasonable suspicion necessary to perform a traffic stop. Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers must have a reasonable suspicion that a driver has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime before the officer can legally pull over the driver.
The District Court of Douglas County granted Glover’s motion to suppress, reasoning that Deputy Mehrer should not have assumed that Glover was driving the truck merely from the fact that Glover was its registered owner. Kansas appealed, and the Kansas Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, holding instead that police officers may stop a vehicle where they know the vehicle’s owner’s license has been revoked and no evidence suggests that the owner is not driving the vehicle. The Court of Appeals, therefore, believed it was reasonable for Deputy Mehrer to assume that the registered owner, Glover, was driving the truck, absent any evidence to the contrary.
Glover appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Kansas, which reversed the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court of Kansas explained that, under the Fourth Amendment, police officers may not briefly detain people—even in a routine traffic stop—unless they have “reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or other criminal activity.” Reasonable suspicion, the Court continued, cannot depend on simply a general suspicion or hunch. Rather, an officer has reasonable suspicion only if the officer can point to specific facts which, taken together with rational inferences, suggest a crime is being committed. Here, the Kansas Supreme Court stated, the only thing Deputy Mehrer knew when he stopped the truck was that its registered owner’s driver’s license was revoked; this information is not enough to give an officer reasonable suspicion that the truck’s driver was committing the crime of driving without a valid driver’s license. The Court explained that a person with a revoked driver’s license could own and register a vehicle or lend their vehicle to another licensed driver without violating the law.
The Court emphasized that although police are permitted to draw valid inferences, here Deputy Mehrer simply assumed Glover was driving. Particularly, the Court explained that police may not “inference stack,” which Deputy Mehrer did here by presuming both that Glover was the truck’s primary driver, and that Glover disregarded his license revocation, merely from the fact that Glover was the registered owner of the vehicle. Moreover, the Court explained, Deputy Mehrer was not permitted to base his reasonable suspicion on the fact that no evidence contradicted his assumption that Glover was driving. Finally, the Court emphasized that the State has the burden of proving that Deputy Mehrer had reasonable suspicion to stop Glover’s vehicle, and the State may not shift this burden onto Glover.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 1, 2019.
THE FOURTH AMENDMENT’S REQUIREMENTS FOR A TRAFFIC STOP
Petitioner Kansas argues that the Fourth Amendment permits police officers to stop citizens in public and briefly investigate suspicious activity. Kansas elaborates that an officer may initiate a so-called Terry Stop of a driver when the officer has reasonable suspicion that the driver is violating the law, including by driving with a suspended license. Kansas points out that the Fourth Amendment permits such a stop, also known as a seizure, even when a citizen’s conduct could have a lawful explanation, so an officer may still initiate a traffic stop of a vehicle where the vehicle’s owner has a suspended license, even if the driver turns out to be someone other than the vehicle’s owner. Kansas maintains that “an innocent motorist will be free to leave after only a brief encounter” because the officer’s authority to stop the driver ceases once the officer learns that the driver has a valid license. To elaborate on the permissible scope of a stop, Kansas analogizes the kind of traffic stop at issue here to the constitutionality of roadside checkpoints, noting that a state’s interest in roadway safety outweighs the “slight” intrusion of a checkpoint stop on drivers. Kansas concludes that, if checkpoint stops of “suspicionless” drivers are constitutional, then an officer is more than justified in initiating a traffic stop based on real suspicion that a driver is unlicensed after observing a vehicle.
Respondent Charles Glover counters that a Terry Stop requires “particularized” reasonable suspicion that the stopped person was acting illegally, and that this requirement would be discarded if officers could always assume that the owner of a vehicle is the person driving it. Glover posits that a Terry Stop’s lowered standard of reasonable suspicion is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s usual requirement of probable cause for searches and seizures. Accordingly, Glover argues, the Supreme Court has limited the scope of these stops by refusing to create categorical rules about what facts automatically satisfy reasonable suspicion. Instead, Glover contends that the reasonable suspicion analysis is always based on context and relevant circumstances, and, thus, a bright-line rule for stopping motorists does not comport with the Supreme Court’s reasonable suspicion case law. Further, Glover contends that expanding traffic stops increases the risk that officers will intrude on drivers’ privacy by finding other justifications for lengthening the stop, searching the vehicle, or arresting the driver.Glover also disputes Kansas’s analogy to checkpoint stops, noting that the Supreme Court has repeatedly distinguished individual traffic stops as more intrusive than general checkpoint stops.
INFERENCES OFFICERS MAY MAKE ABOUT DRIVERS
Kansas argues that reasonable suspicion is “based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior,” and reasons that one such inference would be that the person who drives a vehicle likely owns it, too. Kansas contends that lower courts who have considered the issue have “almost unanimously concluded” that officers may reasonably infer that the person driving a vehicle will most likely be the registered owner of that vehicle. Kansas also cites to statistical studies that suggest a high likelihood that the registered owner of a vehicle will drive it, even if that owner’s license is suspended. Kansas asserts that this inference is so widespread that some states have even established a rebuttable presumption in civil lawsuits that the registered owner of a vehicle is the one driving that vehicle.
Kansas further emphasizes that an inference linking the owner and driver of a vehicle can still be dispelled if an officer has information that contradicts this inference. Kansas continues that courts analyze an officer’s reasonable suspicion by examining the totality of the circumstances of which the officer was aware, so Kansas’s proposed owner-driver inference rule does not shift the burden of proof to the defendant because other evidence courts already consider will sometimes outweigh the officer’s owner-driver inference. To support this assertion, Kansas provides an example where an officer may not infer that the owner of a vehicle is driving because the officer knows that the owner is male, but observes that the driver on the road is female. In this case, however, Kansas asserts that Deputy Mehrer had no information suggesting that Glover was not the driver, so the officer could infer that Glover was driving his own truck.
Glover disputes Kansas’s claim that statistics alone may permit an officer to infer that the driver of a vehicle owns that vehicle. Glover argues that such statistics are often incomplete or misleading, and, by way of example, points out that Kansas’s cited studies show that many recidivist drivers continue to drive, but these studies fail to show how frequently those drivers use their own vehicles as compared to other users. Thus, Glover continues, the Court has never found a “one-size-fits-all” statistical-based assumption to satisfy the fact-intensive, context-specific reasonable suspicion analysis. Ultimately, Glover contends that Kansas cannot rely on statistics at this stage of appeal because the State failed to present these statistics during trial, where the trial judge could have tested their “reliability and relevance.” In addition, Glover suggests that Kansas’s analogy to an owner-driver presumption in civil cases is ill-founded because that presumption only arises when it is clear that the owner was present in the vehicle, and Deputy Mehrer had no evidence available to him at the time of the stop that suggested Glover was present in the truck.
Moreover, Glover emphasizes that the burden is on the State to establish that an officer possessed the requisite reasonable suspicion to perform a traffic stop. Accordingly, Glover argues that permitting a bright-line inference about a driver’s identity in all cases would unjustly shift the burden onto the defendant to prove that the officer had some other reason to doubt that the driver owned the vehicle. Glover concludes that the Fourth Amendment “requires a State to actually do the work” to prove reasonable suspicion, rather than resting on a statistical inference, and that Kansas failed to proffer any basis for reasonable suspicion in this case.
THE STANDARD OF SUSPICION APPLIED IN THE LOWER COURT
Kansas argues that Deputy Mehrer had an “objective and articulable basis” for stopping Glover’s vehicle. According to Kansas, Deputy Mehrer’s license plate check showed the vehicle was registered to Glover, and that Glover’s license had been revoked. Therefore, Kansas continues, because Deputy Mehrer made the commonsense inference that the vehicle’s owner is likely behind the wheel, he could suspect that Glover was operating his vehicle without a license.Kansas argues that the Supreme Court has consistently repeated that an officer making a stop needs only a “minimal level of objective justification.” Kansas contends that the Kansas Supreme Court adopted a more demanding standard than reasonable suspicion when it required further evidence that Glover was the person behind the wheel, and, therefore, the court’s decision should be reversed.
In response, Glover asserts that the lower court applied the correct reasonable suspicion standard, and that Kansas simply failed to provide any facts supporting that level of suspicion. Glover notes that, prior to stopping the vehicle, Deputy Mehrer did not observe any road violations, nor did he identify the driver of Glover’s vehicle. Therefore, Glover argues, Deputy Mehrer attempted to justify the stop entirely on the innocuous fact that someone with a suspended license owned the vehicle. Even further, Glover contends, the State presented no evidence about Deputy Mehrer’s training or experience in making traffic stops, so his inference cannot be considered reasonable or commonplace for police officers in general. Glover also notes that the trial judge made the opposite inference—that other people, such as family members, could have been driving Glover’s vehicle—and that the judge’s views as the factfinder “deserve deference” from the higher courts.
GUIDANCE FOR OFFICERS, AUTOMATED POLICING, AND DRIVER PRIVACY
The National District Attorneys Association (“NDAA”), in support of Kansas, warns that, if the Supreme Court of Kansas’s decision stands, police everywhere will be unsure about how much evidence is necessary to generate reasonable suspicion—thus hindering prosecutions based on these stops. The NDAA suggests that evidence obtained during such traffic stops could be at risk of being suppressed merely because police officers, when preparing to conduct a stop, would not have clear guidance as to whether or not they had adequate reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. Additionally, the NDAA argues, prosecutors would be burdened by unclear and inconsistent court decisions relating to reasonable suspicion. The National Fraternal Order of Police (the “Order”), also in support of Kansas, admits that police officers might sometimes pull over the wrong person, but notes that those traffic stops are not unreasonable and would not heavily burden the innocent driver. Indeed, the Order notes, allowing a police officer to pull over a car like Glover’s would not lead to impermissibly long stops, as officers could quickly verify the driver’s identity, check the driver’s license and insurance, and end the traffic stop in moments.
In response, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), in support of Glover, warns that reversing the decision below would automate police judgment, such that the totality of the circumstances analysis for reasonable suspicion would entirely disappear. As a result, the NACDL concludes that reasonable suspicion would be “delegated to a computer,” relieving police of their responsibility to exercise good judgment. Specifically, the NACDL notes the growing police use of automated computer programs, such as Automated License Plate Readers (“ALPR”), which can quickly scan license plates of cars that drive by and alert police to potential illegal activity. If Kansas’ argument prevails, the NACDL argues, then innocent drivers of vehicles whose registered owners have revoked licenses may be pulled over multiple times a week, even though they are not breaking any laws. Additionally, the NACDL points out that because ALPRs can be installed on telephone poles or other stationary objects, people will necessarily drive past the same ALPR daily; the NACDL fears that innocent employees heading to work and even high school students on the way to school would be pulled over regularly.
RISK TO THE PUBLIC AND TO POLICE OFFICERS
Oklahoma and 16 other states (collectively, the “States”), in support of Kansas, explain that police officers patrol the roads to protect ordinary citizens from drunk or reckless drivers, and fleeing criminals. Allowing officers to effectively patrol and pull over potential unlicensed drivers is necessary for public safety, the States argue, because although only 2.6% of drivers are unlicensed, those drivers account for 18.2% of fatal crashes. Moreover, the Order adds that, because unlicensed drivers are almost always also uninsured, if police are not permitted to pull over drivers that are likely unlicensed, it could lead to car accidents between unlicensed drivers and innocent victims in which victims will struggle to be compensated for their injuries; therefore, the Order argues, it is crucial that officers be allowed to effectively police unlicensed driving. Additionally, according to the NDAA, requiring officers to gather more evidence about who a vehicle’s driver is before pulling over the driver could be dangerous to the officers themselves. The NDAA explains that if officers are required to identify whether the vehicle’s owner is driving the vehicle before conducting a stop, officers may have to drive around traffic or drive at high speeds to get a better look at the vehicle’s driver, and these maneuvers increase the risk of car accidents, a leading cause of officer fatalities.
Conversely, the Fines & Fees Justice Center et al. (“FFJC”), in support of Glover, counters that public safety concerns here are unwarranted, particularly because unlicensed drivers are no more dangerous than licensed ones. License suspensions, the FFJC explains, are a poor predictor of risk because they are not always tied to any sort of driving-related violation; rather, a driver’s license can be suspended for failing to appear in court, pay parking tickets, pay court fines, or pay child support, among many other reasons. The FFJC also notes that forty-two states suspend driver’s licenses for non-driving reasons, mostly as a coercive measure to collect unpaid fines. In fact, the NACDL notes, licenses are sometimes suspended for non-driving related offenses more often than for traffic-related offenses. The FFJC argues that, because licenses are most often suspended for fee-collecting purposes, poor communities and communities of color—whose citizens are less likely to be able to afford to pay court fines—will be the ones whose liberties are unfairly targeted.
- Damon Root: The Supreme Court’s Next Big Fourth Amendment Casehttps://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/us/politics/supreme-court-nonunanimous-juries.html, Reason (Sep. 10, 2019).
- Debra Cassens Weiss: Supreme Court to Decide Whether Registration Check Justified Traffic Stop, ABA Journal (Apr. 2, 2019).
- Nick Sibilla: Supreme Court Traffic Stop Case Could Drastically Limit Drivers’ Fourth Amendment Rights, Forbes (Sept. 13, 2019).