The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday held that a Kansas officer acted reasonably in making a Douglas County traffic stop, reversing the Kansas Supreme Court, Attorney General Derek Schmidt said.
The high court ruled 8-1 that a sheriff’s deputy making an investigative traffic stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license had been revoked was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Kansas Supreme Court had unanimously held the stop violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Supreme Court ruled that the officer had probable cause to believe the person driving the car might be its owner, and knew the owner didn’t have a valid driver’s license. Under the ruling, the officer could use common sense, at least to stop the car and check out that suspicion.
“The 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,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “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. Such is the case with all reasonable inferences.”
The inference in this case turned out to be correct. After identifying the truck driver in this case as the registered owner, Charles Glover Jr., the driver was charged with driving as a habitual violator.
Schmidt said the decision further clarifies the scope of the Fourth Amendment for law enforcement officers in Kansas and around the country. “As this deputy knew, and as the U.S. Supreme Court today confirmed, it is common sense to suspect the registered owner of a car is the person driving it, and that is sufficient to make a traffic stop to determine whether that reasonable suspicion is in fact correct.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor cast the dissenting vote, siding with the original Kansas Supreme Court decision that an officer must at least articulate more than a suspicion or “hunch” of criminal activity to establish probable cause. The registered owner of a car might be driving it, or the driver might be someone else.
The Fourth Amendment contains one of many protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights. As with other amendments, it can be debated but not dismissed. The scope of Monday’s ruling was intentionally narrow but upheld the officer’s authority to make an investigative traffic stop in this case.
We don’t disagree with this narrow ruling but take note with Sotomayor that what one person assumes is “common sense” may actually be a strongly held feeling or hunch. The Bill of Rights continues to provide a guide for a nation that embraces fundamental rights.