The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Fourth Amendment is not violated when the police stop a motorist simply because the vehicle that motorist is driving is registered to someone with a suspended driver's license. In a lone dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor described the majority's handiwork as a decision that "destroys Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that requires individualized suspicion."
The case of Kansas v. Glover originated in 2016 when a patrolling sheriff's deputy ran the plates on a pickup truck and discovered that the truck's owner, Charles Glover, had a suspended driver's license. Was Glover behind the wheel at the time? The sheriff's deputy had no idea and made no additional efforts to find out. He just pulled the vehicle over. Glover was driving and later filed suit, arguing that the traffic stop was an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
"When a driver loses his license, he and his family must rely on other drivers (a spouse, a driving-age child, a child-care provider, a neighbor) to meet the family's needs," Glover and his lawyers argued before the Supreme Court. "Under Kansas's proposed rule…any of those other drivers can be pulled to the side of the road at any moment merely for driving a lawfully registered and insured car in a completely lawful manner." That rule, they argued, is an "unjustified intrusion on personal privacy."
Kansas told the Supreme Court that it does not matter if an innocent driver happens to get stopped based on the erroneous assumption that someone else is driving. "While it is certainly possible that the registered owner of a vehicle is not the driver, 'it is reasonable for an officer to suspect that the owner is driving the vehicle, absent other circumstances that demonstrate the owner is not driving,'" the state told the Court. "That is the very point of investigative stops—to confirm or dispel an officer's suspicion."
Writing today for an 8-1 Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the state. The Kansas sheriff's deputy "drew the commonsense inference that Glover was likely the driver of the vehicle, which provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop," Thomas wrote. "The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness of [the officer's] inferences."
Writing in dissent, Justice Sotomayor accused the majority of shortchanging the Fourth Amendment. "In upholding routine stops of vehicles whose owners have revoked licenses," she wrote, "the Court ignores key foundations of our reasonable-suspicion jurisprudence and impermissibly and unnecessarily reduces the State's burden of proof."
"The consequence of the majority's approach," Sotomayor maintained, "is to absolve officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver where feasible. But that is precisely what officers ought to do—and are more than capable of doing."
The Supreme Court's decision in Kansas v. Glover is available here.