In an 8-1 Opinion delivered by Justice Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Kansas Supreme Court and held that when an officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, a traffic stop is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The decision stems from an April 28, 2016 traffic stop initiated by a Kansas police officer after the officer ran the license plate of a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck. The license plate report confirmed that the registered owner of the truck, Charles Glover, had a revoked Kansas driver’s license. The officer inferred that Glover, being the owner, was also the driver of the truck at the time. With no other facts present, the officer initiated a traffic stop.
The trial court in Kansas granted Glover’s motion to suppress all evidence from the traffic stop. The Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the State. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed, holding that the police officer violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights by stopping the driver without reasonable suspicion. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case November 4, 2019.
Crabbe, Brown & James, on behalf of the National FOP, filed an amicus brief in this matter in support of law enforcement and the State of Kansas. The National FOP argued that law enforcement must be permitted to conduct brief, investigatory traffic stops such as the one before the Court, in order to protect the safety of both the public and the police officer. Said stops will remove unlicensed, uninsured, and drivers with warrants off the roadways thereby promoting public safety. Furthermore, traffic stops are one of the most dangerous encounters with the public for law enforcement. Once an officer has reasonable suspicion, he or she must be able to conduct a traffic stop. Nothing more should be required.
The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the National FOP, law enforcement, and the State of Kansas. The Court found that under the totality of the circumstances, the officer drew an entirely reasonable inference that Glover was driving while his license was revoked. In dispelling Glover’s arguments, the Court reasoned that police officers are able to rely not just on training materials or experience in forming reasonable suspicion, but on common sense obtained outside of their work duties. Here, it was a common sense inference that the owner with the revoked license was likely the driver of the vehicle.
The Court did, however, emphasize the narrow scope of its holding by noting that additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion. By way of example, the Court stated that if an officer knows that the registered owner of the vehicle is in his mid-sixties but observes that the driver is a female 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. In this case, however, Deputy Mehrer possessed no such exculpatory information to rebut the reasonable inference that Glover was driving his own truck.
Crabbe, Brown & James’ Managing Partner, Larry H. James, has been General Counsel to the National Fraternal Order of Police since 2001. The National FOP offer their service as amicus curiae when important police and public safety interests are at stake, as in this case.