Justices Appear Split Over Police Power in Traffic Stops

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court was sharply divided Monday as the justices considered whether a police officer can pull a car over based solely on the knowledge that it is registered to a person with a suspended license.

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington on June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

To some justices, a Kansas sheriff’s deputy was perfectly justified in pulling over Charles Glover as he was driving his 1995 Chevy pickup truck based solely on the fact that the deputy ran the car’s plates and found Glover’s license was suspended.

Requiring an officer to further justify pulling over a car in that circumstance would either amount to a mere formality or a massive expansion of what is required of law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment, those justices reasoned.

“What you are proposing is either a trivial decision or a revolutionary decision,” Justice Samuel Alito said. “It’s a trivial decision if all [that’s] lacking here is a statement, ‘I’ve been trained that blah, blah, blah.’ It’s a revolutionary decision if in every case involving reasonable suspicion there has to be a statistical showing or an examination of all the things that you think are necessary here.”

But to other justices, Glover is not making a big ask, especially considering he did not commit a traffic violation before the stop. They suggested courts would need to know more about the circumstances surrounding a stop before deciding whether an officer was justified in pulling the car over.

“I suspect there are some towns in the United States where people don’t break the law no matter what, that, you know, if your license got suspended, the police officer knows that in this jurisdiction, that presumption is not a good one,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “It doesn’t work. It might work somewhere else, but without having the officer testify as to where he’s doing this stop, we don’t know.”

Glover admits that he was indeed driving with a suspended license, but argues the stop that led to his misdemeanor conviction should never have happened because Mark Mehrer, the deputy who pulled him over after running his plates through a state database, did not have reasonable suspicion to believe he was the one who was driving the car.

In stipulated facts presented to the trial court at a suppression hearing, Mehrer said he pulled Glover over because he “assumed” the car’s registered owner was the person driving it. He did not testify to any other circumstances surrounding the stop, such as the time of day, weather conditions or how common it is for people in the area to drive with suspended licenses.

State courts flipped back and forth on whether the stop was justified, but the Kansas Supreme Court eventually sided with Glover.

At arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, Kansas Solicitor General Toby Crouse said under the court’s past decisions on the Fourth Amendment, Mehrer was merely doing good police work by pulling Glover over.

Crouse acknowledged things would be different in a situation where the person driving the car is clearly not the registered owner – like if the listed owner was a 60-year-old man and the person driving the car was a 22-year-old woman – but without such stark circumstances, requiring more than what the state has already presented would upset the decisions of many courts that have considered the question.

Crouse had the support of the Trump administration, with Assistant to the Solicitor General Michael Huston arguing common sense supports the notion that the person in whose name a car is registered is likely to be the driver.

“The Fourth Amendment asks police officers to be reasonable,” Huston said. “It does not ask them to set aside common sense when they step into the patrol car.”

The justices who appeared most skeptical of Crouse’s arguments wondered why states should be able to easily gloss over key circumstances surrounding a traffic stop.

“Why would it be that we would, just because the threshold is lower, essentially throw out the totality of the circumstances analysis and simply say this one fact is enough?” Justice Elena Kagan asked.

Goldstein & Russell attorney Sarah Harrington, who argued for Glover, said the state should need to say more about the circumstances surrounding the stop in order to justify the intrusion.

She said the burden is on the state to show that an officer’s decision to pull someone over was reasonable by providing information specific to that particular stop, not national trends or statistics, and that Kansas’ arguments to the contrary effectively amount to shifting that burden onto defendants.

“If the state chooses to truncate its evidentiary showing, it’s not up to the defendant to say, well, actually maybe you should have put in evidence about this or that or the other thing, right?” Harrington argued. “That’s on the state. And it’s not a huge burden that the state has to do.”

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared among the most skeptical of Harrington’s argument, as he struggled to see how it is not reasonable for someone to assume that the person driving a car is the person in whose that name the car is registered.

“Reasonable suspicion doesn’t depend upon the kind of showing that you would seem to demand, whether it’s a statistical study or special experience,” Roberts said.

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