Today, in Kansas v. Glover, No. 18-556 (Apr. 6, 2020), the United States Supreme Court held that, “[w]hen the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle, an investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Slip Op. Syllabus.
In 2016, a Lawrence Kansas Sheriff’s Deputy ran a check on the license plate of a moving Chevrolet pickup truck. The Deputy learned that the pickup was registered to Charles Glover, Jr., and that Mr. Glover’s license had been revoked. Based only on that information, the officer stopped the truck, which Mr. Glover was driving. Mr. Glover was prosecuted for driving without a license and moved to suppress the evidence based on the Fourth Amendment. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Glover, finding that the officer made two unreasonable assumptions: (1) that the registered owner is likely to be driving the vehicle; and (2) that people with revoked or suspended driver’s license will likely disregard the revocation or suspension.
Justice Thomas delivered the 8-to-1 opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The Court reaffirmed that the police may initiate a brief investigatory traffic stop when they have “a particularized and objective basis” to suspect legal wrongdoing. United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981). The level of suspicion required is less than probable cause and depends on the “factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians act.” Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 402 (2014 ). Courts must permit law enforcement to make “commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior. Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 125 (2000). Here, the deputy’s commonsense inferences that the owner of a vehicle was likely the vehicle’s driver provided more than reasonable suspicion to initate the stop. "The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness of [the deputy's] inference."
The majority emphasized the “narrow scope” of its holding is narrow. The reasonable suspicion standard “takes into account the totality of the circumstances.” The Court recognized the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion, e.g., if an officer knows the registered owner is in his mid-60s and the observes the driver is in her mid-20s. But here the deputy possessed no information to rebut the reasonable inference that Glover was driving the vehicle.
Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed a concurring opinion, providing additional examples of how a defendant may rebut the reasonableness of an officer's inference that the registered owner was driving the vehicle that is stopped.
Justice Sotomayor delivered a lengthy dissent, arguing that the majority “has paved the road to finding reasonable suspicion based on nothing more than a demographic profile.”