Greetings, intellectual poseurs. It’s time once again for a pretentious foray into the dark side — another search-and-seizure brain teaser.
It comes from Kansas, where a curious cop made a traffic stop that didn’t come to a halt until Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment guarantees that people shall be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But under what circumstances are searches and seizures constitutionally unreasonable?
It’s a complicated subject that constantly evolves as society progresses. Take a guess as to how Kansas vs. Glover will come out.
Here are the facts — Deputy Mark Mehrer was on patrol in the Lawrence, Kan., area when he stopped a pickup truck. Although the officer saw no traffic violation justifying the stop, Mehrer ran a license check, discovered that the truck owner’s licence was suspended and figured there was a good chance that the vehicle’s owner was behind the wheel.
Mehrer’s suspicion was confirmed — truck owner Charles Glover, whose license has been suspended, was behind the wheel.
Legal slam dunk for the prosecution, right? No!
Here’s the legal question, as presented by SCOTUSblog, a website that covers the Supreme Court: Is it constitutionally reasonable to suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is currently its driver?
Kansas contends that a ruling against it would threaten public safety, while Glover warns that a ruling against him would give police too much discretion to stop vehicles.
A Kansas trial judge concluded that the officer had no reasonable grounds to stop Glover. A state appeals court reversed the trial judge, concluding that the officer had proper authority. The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the appellate court.
The Kansas trial judge based part of her decision on her experience as a motorist.
SCOTUSblog legal analyst Evan Lee said the trial judge remarked “that in her family, all three cars were registered in her name, yet two of them were mostly driven by her husband and daughter.” In that context, both the Kansas trial and supreme courts “found that, without additional evidence, the deputy’s assumption that the owner was driving was unjustified” and “allowing an officer to assume that an owner with a revoked license was driving would effectively relieve the state of its burden to demonstrate reasonable suspicion.”
Kansas disagrees, telling the U.S. Supreme Court that “reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop” is met whenever an officer has a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting that a motorist is unlicensed. ...”
An officer “may reasonably suspect that the registered owner of a vehicle is the driver of his or her vehicle where the officer lacks information to the contrary,” the state contends.
Kansas argues that “the totality of these circumstances provided a sound basis to initiate the stop.” It cited studies showing “(on average) two to three drivers per registered automobile in Kansas,” a statistic showing there was a 1 in 3 chance that Glover was driving and providing “reasonable suspicion” to support the stop.
But if the officer has a only 1 in 3 chance of guessing right, isn’t it more revealing that he has a 2 in 3 chance of being wrong? Never mind that, Kansas argues, the state requires “no more than a 5-to-10-percent likelihood, based on Fourth Amendment precedent” to have the necessary legal authority.
Glover, however, argued the state’s “totality of the circumstances” argument really is a “totality of one circumstance.” He argued that the state seeks a “bright-line rule to the effect that police anywhere in America can pull over almost any vehicle they wish.” Surely, he argued, the state must be required to have more information than a suspended license to pull motorists over.
If readers are feeling stumped, they’re in good company.
Wayne LaFave, a search-and-seizure expert who is emeritus professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, characterized the issue as “kind of a toss-up.”
“It’s one of those cases where every time I think about it, I come out on the opposite side of where I was before,” he said.
LaFave did raise one of those legal counter-arguments lawyers love. The deputy claimed the legal right to make a stop because the license of the vehicle’s owner was suspended, meaning Glover was probably driving illegally.
But LaFave said the argument also goes the other way — the license suspension detracted from the officer’s authority because Glover’s suspension made it more likely that he was not driving.
Based on the justices’ comments during oral arguments, the Associated Press reports “the Supreme Court seems ready to say police may pull over a car when they know only that its owner’s license is not valid — even if they don’t know who’s driving.”
It said, “Chief Justice John Roberts was among justices who suggested that the common-sense view that the owner would be driving was enough to justify the traffic stop,” although Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor seemed like likely votes for the driver.