By Steve Pomper
Do provocative headlines such as in the Los Angeles Times, “The U.S. Supreme Court just made it easier for police to pull you over” benefit the cops or the public? Absolutely not. Is the headline true? Well, yes, but only if “you” are a driver with a revoked license. Headline doesn’t tell you this, does it?
Rather than incendiary, the Detroit News wrote, “Supreme Court backs police in traffic stops.” Simple, accurate, and no blurry, anti-police provocation. What a difference a headline makes. But what about the substance of this ruling? What does it actually do for cops and to drivers?
According to the Fox News Channel, this ruling stems from a Kansas Supreme Court case where Douglas County Deputy Sheriff Mehrer pulled over a unknown driver of a vehicle, later identified as, Charles Glover Jr., based on computer information showing the registered owner had a revoked license.
Glover argued in court that Deputy Mehrer, armed only with information the vehicle’s owner had a revoked driver’s license, did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him because the deputy did not know who was driving the vehicle. The Kansas State Supreme Court agreed with Glover, deciding the deputy had stopped the driver based on “only a hunch” the driver was Glover.
The cop in me immediately bristled at the lower court’s ruling. How is information provided by the state, informing Deputy Mehrer that the owner of a vehicle being driven on a public roadway has a revoked license only a “hunch?” It seems like much more, doesn’t it?
If the deputy had pulled the driver over, suspecting his license was revoked, based on something like, the way the driver looked at him. That would be a hunch. Incidentally, in my hypothetical, the officer would have probably been right something was up with the driver. After all, cops get those “looks” from suspended, revoked, and wanted drivers all the time. But, alone, it’s legally, technically, and, now that I’m retired, frustratingly, not enough to make a traffic stop.
Now, if the deputy knew the owner of the vehicle by sight and knew the owner was not driving, reasonable suspicion for the revocation stop vanishes. But not knowing if the driver is the owner creates a situation where it is a likely assumption. While I stopped many vehicles driven by people other than the owners, the vast majority were driven by the owners.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court, finding “that Mehrer’s belief was more reasonable than just a hunch, and [was] a “commonsense inference.” Justice Clarence Thomas, for the majority, wrote, “The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness of Deputy Mehrer’s inference.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenting opinion. She did not believe Deputy Mehrer supported his assertion the driver was likely the vehicle’s owner and therefore had a revoked license. Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “With no basis in the record to presume that unlicensed drivers routinely continue driving, the majority endeavors to fill the gap with its own ‘common sense.’” You need to take a brief stroll in a cop’s world, Your Honor. Unlicensed drivers continue driving all the time. For cops, knowing that is common sense.
However, Justice Sotomayor’s arguments, which mirrored Glover’s, could not convince the majority—including her fellow liberal justices. Although, reportedly, despite Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg were closer to Justice Sotomayor’s opinion; they still agreed with the majority Deputy Mehrer had reasonable suspicion to make the stop.
It was reassuring to see such unanimity in the Supreme Court among justices considered liberal and conservative on an issue seen as pro law enforcement. Cops are so used to so many court rulings going against them.
Sadly, some of those decisions have put law enforcement officers at risk. Still, I’ve long held that law enforcement is not supposed to be easy in a free republic based on individual liberty. I wrote about this years ago in my first book. A Dutch police officer once rode along for a shift with my partner and me.
At one point, while we were deciding whether to pull a driver over, the officer leaned in from the backseat and said, “You mean you need a reason to stop a car?” Cherish your rights, folks. It’s not the same everywhere, apparently, not even in a western democracy like the Netherlands.
In the case under discussion, we’re dealing with a procedural and administrative issue. I understand the valid arguments on both sides, regarding whether reasonable suspicion exists to stop a car specifically because of the driver’s status when the officer doesn’t know who is driving a vehicle. I understand it on paper but not so much in the real world.
Aside from the Supreme Court’s basis for their ruling, there are important public safety factors we cannot ignore. For example, the state revoking a driver’s license is a higher offense than the various degrees of license suspensions.
In fact, it’s likely the driver had a dalliance with license suspensions before being revoked. Logic dictates officers must assume that a driver whose license has been revoked has committed many traffic offenses, some serious, that put the public at risk to have obtained that status.
In Kansas, according to the state’s driver’s licensing website, the state can suspend or revoke a driver’s license for offenses including the following:
- Driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol and drugs.
- Speeding and reckless driving.
- Hit and runs.
- Failing to appear in court.
- Driving with a suspended/revoked license.
- Using your vehicle to commit a felony.
So, if an officer stops a driver who is not the vehicle’s owner, the driver will only be momentarily inconvenienced. For the officer not to stop a possible/probable revoked driver would be disregarding one’s public safety duty, wouldn’t it?