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Supreme Court rules police can stop vehicle based on owner’s revoked license
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Supreme Court rules police can stop vehicle based on owner’s revoked license

The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for a police officer to make an investigative traffic stop after running the license plate of a vehicle and learning that the owner’s driver’s license has been revoked, even if the officer is unsure that the owner is driving the vehicle.

The question of whether the stop was reasonable came to the court through a Kansas case, Kansas v. Glover. In the state trial court, Glover attempted to suppress all evidence seized during the stop, claiming that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion. The district court granted the motion to the suppress—a decision that has been disputed by the appellate courts. The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision. Then, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. Finally, the US Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, reversed the Kansas high court.

In the opinion of the Supreme Court, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court said that “the level of suspicion [that reasonable suspicion] requires is considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence” and “depends on the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.”

The court went on to say that “common sense suffices to justify” the officer’s inference that the owner was driving with a revoked license, and “Kansas law reinforces that it is reasonable to infer that an individual with a revoked license may continue driving.” In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, she argued that the inference made was not a product of the officer’s training. The majority responded by saying that “[t]he inference that the driver of a car is its registered owner does not require any specialized training; rather, it is a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.”

The court concluded by reaffirming its precedents that the “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness,'” and that the officer in this case “drew an entirely reasonable inference.” The court held that the stop was reasonable because the officer lacked any information that would rebut the reasonable inference that the owner of the vehicle was driving.

Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined the court’s opinion, while also concurring. In the concurring opinion authored by Kagan, the note that the Kansas statutory scheme demonstrates that a revocation of a license stems from serious and repeated offenses, giving way to a reasonable inference that the owner was likely to continue breaking the law. They found Kansas’ unique statutory scheme to be a dispositive fact that leads the court to its conclusion.

In its narrow holding, this court said it has reaffirmed its precedents on the reasonable suspicion inquiry.