News You Can Use: SCOTUS holds officers have reasonable suspicion to stop a car if the owner has a revoked license

In Kansas v. Glover, the Supreme Court considered the narrow question “whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by initiating an investigative traffic stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner has a revoked license.”  Kansas v. Glover, No. 18-556, 2020 WL 1668283, at *2 (U.S. April 6, 2020). The Court held that “the stop is reasonable,” unless the officer learns “information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle.” Id.

The case essentially came down to whether, in the context of an investigative detention based on reasonable suspicion, an officer can infer that the owner is the person driving the car, even though their license has been revoked.  An eight-judge majority concluded that inference was reasonable.

The majority began with the premise that it is reasonable to infer that a car’s owner is the one driving, and under the circumstances here, no evidence rebutted that reasonable inference.  “The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate” that inference because the “reasonable suspicion inquiry ‘falls considerably short’ of 51% accuracy.”  Id. at *3.  Neither does the fact that the owner’s license was revoked negate it because, according to the Court, common sense and statistics demonstrate that drivers with revoked licenses often continue to drive.  Moreover, under Oklahoma’s license revocation scheme, only “drivers who have already demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive” may have their license’s revoked. Id. at *4. Thus, it is not unreasonable to infer that they may continue to drive in violation of the law.

The majority rejected Justice Sotomayor’s concerns in her dissent that the Court was doing away with the requirement that reasonable suspicion be based an officer’s training and experience rather than data and probabilities.  The majority countered that officers may apply common sense, not only expertise, and that reliance on data-driven probabilities is wholly appropriate (although, relying “exclusively” on probabilities might not be).

Finally, the Court “emphasize[d] the narrow scope of [its] holding.”  Id. at *5. Not only is the holding limited to revoked licenses (as opposed to suspended licenses), but the inference that the owner is driving can be easily rebutted.  “For example, if an officer knows that the registered owner of the vehicle is in his mid-sixties but observes that the driver is 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.’” Id.

TAKEAWAYS

  • This decision does not change Tenth Circuit law.  The Tenth Circuit, in a decision by then-circuit-judge Gorsuch, has already held that an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle where a database indicates the owner does not have insurance, notwithstanding that the non-owner driver might be independently insured.  See United States v Cortez-Galaviz, 495 F.3d 1203, 1207-08 (10th Cir. 2007) (“[C]ommon sense and ordinary experience suggest that a vehicle’s owner is, while surely not always, very often the driver of his or her own car.”).  And, at least one district court has relied on Cortez-Galaviz to find reasonable suspicion to stop a car where the owner had their license revoked, which was the fact pattern in GloverSee United States v Wissiup,2013 WL 4430872, at *4 (D. Utah Aug. 16, 2013).
  • The holding is narrow.  Officers may stop cars if the owner has a revoked license, unless they have reason to believe that someone other than the owner is driving (for example they look different, or the non-owner driver shows their ID).
  • And the result appears to depend on the state’s particular statutory scheme. The holding is at least somewhat dependent on Oklahoma’s scheme allowing revocation for only relatively serious offenses.  Thus, in another state where revocation could be based on more minor conduct, an officer may not be able to infer that the owner is driving on a revoked license.