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SCOTUS: Knowledge that Driver’s License of Vehicle’s Registered Owner Was Revoked Provides Reasonable Suspicion to Initiate Traffic Stop

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) whittled away at Fourth Amendment protections by holding that when a police officer has knowledge that the driver’s license of a vehicle’s registered owner has been revoked this gives rise to an inference that the driver is likely the owner and provides the officer with reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigative stop unless the officer also possesses other information that would negate the inference.

Charles Glover, Jr., was charged in Douglas County, Kansas with driving as a habitual violator after a traffic stop revealed he was driving with a revoked license. Glover filed a motion to suppress all evidence seized during the stop, arguing the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.

At the suppression hearing, neither Glover nor the officer testified. Instead, the parties stipulated to facts that included: (1) Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Mehrer observed a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck and ran a check on the truck’s license plate; (2) the check revealed the plate was registered to a Chevrolet 1500 pickup, the truck was registered to Glover, and Glover’s license was revoked; (3) Mehrer did not observe any traffic violations and did not attempt to discern the characteristics of the driver; (4) based solely on the assumption that Glover was driving the truck, Mehrer initiated a traffic stop; and (5) the driver of the truck was then identified as Glover.

The district court granted Glover’s motion to suppress. But the Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that “it was reasonable for Mehrer 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.”

However, the Kansas Supreme Court then reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, ruling that Mehrer’s assumption that the registered owner was likely the driver was merely a “hunch” and did not give rise to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. SCOTUS then granted Kansas’ petition for a writ of certiorari.

Justice Thomas, writing for the majority, observed that “[u]nder this Court’s precedents, the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has ‘a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.’” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411 (1981). Although a “hunch” will not create reasonable suspicion, “the level of suspicion the standard requires is considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence, and obviously less than is necessary for probable cause.” Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014). The standard “depends on the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” Id. Additionally, SCOTUS has recognized that states have a “vital interest in ensuring that only those qualified to do so are permitted to operate motor vehicles [and] that licensing, registration, and vehicle inspection requirements are being observed.” Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979).

Prior to initiating the traffic stop, Mehrer observed an individual driving a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck; a check on the license plate revealed the registered owner of the truck had a revoked license, and the model of the truck matched the observed vehicle. From these facts, Mehrer drew the common sense inference that Glover was the likely driver of the vehicle, which provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop, according to the Court.

Further, 75 percent of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive. 2 T. Neuman et al., National Coop. Hwy. Research Program Report 500: A Guide for Addressing Collisions Involving Unlicensed Drivers and Drivers With Suspended or Revoked Licenses (2003). And 19 percent of motor vehicle fatalities from 2008-2012 “involved drivers with invalid licenses.” National Hwy. and Traffic Safety Admin., Research Note: Driver License Compliance Status in Fatal Crashes 2 (Oct. 2014).

Additionally, Kansas law reinforces the reasonableness of Mehrer’s inference that Glover was driving the vehicle because licenses are revoked from “drivers who have already demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive.” Driver’s licenses must be revoked upon convictions for vehicular homicide, reckless driving, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, or a felony in which a vehicle was used. Kan. Stat. Ann. §§ 8-254(a), 8-252. Revocation is discretionary if the driver has been convicted of serious violations of traffic regulations with such frequency as to indicate a disrespect for traffic laws; has been convicted of three or more moving traffic violations on separate occasions within a 12-month period; or have been convicted of a moving traffic violation while the person’s driving privileges were already restricted, suspended, or revoked. Id. at §§ 8-254(a) (1) - (4).

Justice Thomas emphasized the “narrow scope” of the holding, opining that the reasonableness standard “takes into account the totality of the circumstances: the whole picture.” Navarette. As a result, the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion. For example, if an officer knows the registered owner of the vehicle is a male in his mid-sixties but observes the driver is a female in her mid-twenties, then the totality of the circumstances would not “raise a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.” Cortez. Justice Thomas concluded that “[u]nder the totality of the circumstances of this case, Deputy Mehrer drew an entirely reasonable inference that Glover was driving while his license was revoked” because Mehrer possessed no information that would negate the inference. Consequently, the Court reversed the decision of the Kansas Supreme Court and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with the Court’s opinion.

Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred with the majority. But Justice Kagan would have reached a different result if Kansas had merely suspended Glover’s license or if Kansas revoked licenses for matters that had nothing to do with road safety, e.g., failing to pay parking tickets, court fees, or child support. If that were the case, then the Court’s reasoning that a person with a revoked license will keep driving because he has a history of disregarding traffic laws would no longer apply. And Mehrer’s inference would then be not much different from a “hunch” and not create “reasonable suspicion.” Navarette.

Justice Sotomayor dissented. In her view, the majority’s conclusion that the seizure of the vehicle was constitutional “because drivers with revoked licenses (as opposed to suspended licenses) in Kansas ‘have already demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive’” is erroneous. The distinction between suspended and revoked licenses would not hold up in other jurisdictions. Other states revoke licenses for offenses that have nothing to do with driving, e.g., Kentucky revokes if the license is used to buy alcohol, K.R.S. § 186.560, as does Montana, Mont. Code Ann. § 61-5-206. And in Oklahoma, “revocation” is the label assigned to a temporary sanction, which many be imposed for infractions such as failure to comply with child support payments. Okla. Stat., Tit. 47, § 6-201.1.

Yet, the “empirical studies” cited by the majority do not account for these variances in “revoked” licenses. One study lumped drivers with suspended and revoked licenses together, and the other study merely examined the license status of motorists involved in fatal collisions. Neither study supported the conclusion that drivers with revoked licenses continue to drive because they have a history of flouting driving regulations.

Justice Sotomayor explained that in order to support reasonable suspicion, an officer must articulate facts and his or her rational inferences from these facts. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975). A logical gap as to any one matter may be overcome by a strong showing regarding other indicia of reliability, but gaps may not go unfilled. Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237 (2013). When an officer observes a vehicle on the highway, that does not logically lead to an inference that the driver is the owner of the vehicle. But a traffic stop must be based on “a suspicion that the particular [subject] being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.” Cortez. The inquiry ordinarily involves some observation or report about the subject’s behavior – not merely the class to which he belongs. Navarette.

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