©2020 Jack Ryan, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

Officer Can Make Brief Stop of Vehicle where Registered Owner’s License is Revoked unless there is Information that should Dispel a Belief that the Owner is the Driver

In Kansas v. Glover,[1] the United States Supreme Court considered a case where Deputy Mehrer of the Douglas County Kansas Sheriff’s Office observed a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck with Kansas plate 295 ATJ.   Deputy Mehrer ran the plate with the Kansas Department of Revenue and it came back on the 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup. The Kansas Department of Revenue files indicated that the truck was registered to Charles Glover Jr. and that Glover’s license was revoked in the State of Kansas

Deputy Mehrer assumed that Charles Glover Jr. was the driver of the truck and pulled the truck over based solely on the information that the registered owner of the truck had a revoked license.  Mehrer did not see any other traffic violations and took no steps in an attempt to identify the driver before making the stop.   Deputy Mehrer’s assumption was correct, Charles Glover Jr. was the driver.   Glover was charged with being a habitual violator after a traffic stop revealed that he was driving with a revoked license.

Charles Glover challenged the stop made by the officer as lacking reasonable suspicion since the officer did not know who was driving the truck but instead made an assumption based on the records of the registered owner of the truck.   Glover then wanted all evidence of the stop, i.e. him being identified as the driver, as the fruit of the poisonous tree since based on his argument the stop was bad.

The United States Supreme Court held that the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion based on the records from the check that was done and a reasonable inference that the owner was the driver.

The Court pointed out that:

“the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” “Although a mere ‘hunch’ does not create reasonable suspicion, the level of suspicion the standard requires is considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence, and obviously less than is necessary for probable cause.” Because it is a “less demanding” standard, “reasonable suspicion can be established with information that is different in quantity or content than that required to establish probable cause.” The standard “depends on the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” Courts “cannot reasonably demand scientific certainty . . . where none exists.” Rather, they must permit officers to make “commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.” (noting that an officer “‘need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct’ ”.  (citations omitted).

Applying these principles to the facts of this case the Court noted:

Before initiating the stop, Deputy Mehrer observed an individual operating a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck with Kansas plate 295ATJ. He also knew that the registered owner of the truck had a revoked license and that the model of the truck matched the observed vehicle. From these three facts, Deputy Mehrer drew the commonsense inference that Glover was likely the driver of the vehicle, which provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop.

The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reason- ableness of Deputy Mehrer’s inference. Such is the case with all reasonable inferences. The reasonable suspicion inquiry “falls considerably short” of 51% accuracy, for, as we have explained, “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect.” (citations omitted).

The Court also noted that just because Glover had a suspended license did not make the inference that he was driving an unreasonable inference.  The Court recognized that many people with revoked licenses continue to drive.

In response to an argument made by Glover and the lone dissenter in the case, the Court pointed out that there is no Fourth Amendment requirement that an officer can only draw a reasonable inference based on their training and experience as a law enforcement officer.  The Court noted that the “inference that the driver of a car is its registered owner does not require any specialized training, it is a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.”  The Court went on to assert: “In reaching this conclusion, we in no way minimize the significant role that specialized training and experience routinely play in law enforcement investigations. We simply hold that such experience is not required in every instance.”   As part of this particular observation, the Court noted that if inferences for purposes of reasonable suspicion had to be based on an officer’s training and experience, then a traffic stop’s validity would be tied to the officer’s length of service.

The Court also noted that officers may rely on probabilities in the reasonable suspicion context. The Court pointed out that Mehrer did not rely solely on probabilities as Mehrer knew the license plate was linked to the truck and that the owner of the truck had a revoked license.  The Court asserted: “Based on these minimal facts, he used common sense to form a reasonable suspicion that a specific individual was potentially engaged in criminal activity—driving with a suspended license.”

The Court concluded: “Accordingly, combining database information and commonsense judgments in this context is fully consonant with this Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents.

The Court did point out that additional facts could cut against an officer drawing a reasonable inference in a case like this.  The Court gave an example of when the registered has a date of birth that places them at 60 years of age and the officer can see that the operator appears to in their twenties.  Thus, if an officer has information before the stop that rebuts the reasonable inference then the stop will not be valid.



[1] Kansas v. Glover, slip opinion 18-556 decided April 6, 2020.

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