Imagine for a minute that your car is in the shop. You have some errands to run, so you borrow someone else’s car. A friend, a family member, a coworker, whomever. As you’re driving to the store, you see a police cruiser activate its lights and sirens to pull you over. You weren’t speeding, you didn’t drive over the lane line, you followed every traffic rule in the book. So why are you being pulled over? The officer walks up to your window and says you were stopped because the officer ran the car’s license plate and learned the registered owner of the car had their license revoked. The officer didn’t make any effort to determine whether that registered owner was actually driving the car: he just saw the revocation and pulled you over.
Is the officer allowed to do this?
The U.S. Supreme Court says yes. The Court’s 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Glover upheld a traffic stop based solely on the officer’s assumption that the registered owner of the vehicle, whose license was revoked by the State of Kansas, was the one driving it at that particular time.
A Kansas Deputy Sherriff ran a license plate check on an older model pick-up truck. He discovered that the registered owner of the truck, Glover, had his license revoked. The deputy assumed the Glover was driving the truck and, without witnessing any traffic violations or attempting to identify the driver of the truck, initiated a traffic stop. Glover was the driver of the vehicle and was charged with driving as a habitual offender.
Glover filed a motion to suppress evidence stemming from the stop, which was granted by the trial court. The appellate court reversed, holding it was reasonable for the Deputy to infer that the driver was the owner of the vehicle because there were “specific and articulable facts from which the officer’s common-sense inference gave rise to a reasonable suspicion. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, holding that the Deputy’s belief was a hunch based on “applying and stacking unstated assumptions that are unreasonable without further factual basis.”
Reasonable Assumptions Justify Traffic Stops
Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas reversed the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court, holding that when an officer “lacks information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle, an investigative stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the 4th Amendment.”
Justice Thomas concluded that the officer’s “common sense” inference that the owner of the vehicle was likely the driver provided more than reasonable ground to initiate the stop. He also reasoned that someone who had committed a crime in the past that lead to a license revocation would be more likely to ignore that revocation and continue driving.
Assumptions Have Limits
Justice Thomas’s opinion did note this is a limited holding, and the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued an opinion concurring with the holding of the majority opinion. They focused on the fact that under Kansas’s driver’s license laws, license revocation is reserved for those convicted of crimes, while license suspension is used for lesser violations such as not paying a parking ticket or child support. Justice Kagan indicated that, if Glover’s license were simply suspended, she would not have agreed with Justice Thomas’ decision.
The concurrence also discusses what other types of facts might dispel reasonable suspicion in this situation. What if the officer knows the owner is a 65-year-old man, but can see the driver is a young woman? What if the vehicle has more than one registered owner? The concurring justices argue that the addition of these facts would make it impermissible to stop the vehicle.
The concurring justices further acknowledge their decision may have been different if the issue had been thoroughly litigated originally. However, neither the prosecution nor the defense attorney called any witnesses at the suppression hearing. Instead, they submitted a barebones list of stipulations.
Who Should Prove Reasonableness
Justice Sotomayor was alone in issuing a dissent to the Court’s ruling. She argues that reasonable suspicion is based on the reasonable officer’s assessment, given his training and experience, not ordinary person’s common sense.
Justice Sotomayor also argues that this ruling effectively flips the burden of proof saying it would permit police officers to “effectuate roadside stops whenever they lack “information negating an inference the vehicle’s unlicensed owner is the driver.” Then, defendant must to prove the officer’s assumption was unreasonable. This burden-shifting is inconsistent with the general rule: if the officer did not have a warrant, the government must prove there was an applicable exception to the warrant requirement.
What This Means For Ohio Drivers
This ruling underscores the ever-growing list of reasons for which officers are permitted to stop drivers. Once a traffic stop is made, if the officer observes signs of alcohol or drug consumption, things escalate quickly. From there, an inability to satisfactorily perform balancing tests can lead to a DUI/OVI charge. If you find yourself in that situation, the DUI / OVI lawyers at the Dominy Law Firm can help.