The Supreme Court this week held that Kansas law enforcement was justified in pulling over a Kansas man for a traffic stop after learning that the registered owner of the vehicle had his license revoked by the state, even though the officers did not know who was driving.

The opinion was 8-1 and it reversed a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court. 

While Justice Sonia Sotomayor, issued a scathing dissent, saying the ruling gives police officers “free rein to stop a vehicle involved in no suspicious activity … based merely on a gues or a hunch about the driver’s identity,” some of the justices said the ruling is more limited in its reach and apply mostly to Kansas’ law. 

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor blasted the U.S. Supreme Court for giving police officers “free rein to stop a vehicle involved in no suspicious activity…based merely on a guess or a ‘hunch’ about the driver’s identity.”

In 2016, Douglas County Deputy Mark Mehrer saw a 1995 Chevy pickup pass by and promptly ran a license plate check. Mehrer learned that the owner of the car was one Charles Glover, Jr., who had his driver’s license revoked, though the record doesn’t reveal why. Although Mehrer couldn’t identify the driver and didn’t see any traffic violations, he assumed that Glover was driving. On that basis alone, the deputy decided to stop and pull over the car. He was right, and charged Glover with driving as a habitual violator.

Glover moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, declaring in July 2018 that Mehrer had “only a hunch” and had “no information to support the assumption that the owner was the driver.”

“The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness” of the officer’s inferences, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. He emphasized what he called the “narrow scope” of the holding. He said, for instance, that if an officer knows that the registered owner is in his 60s, but observes that the driver is in her mid-20s, those additional facts might “dispel reasonable suspicion.”

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agreed with the majority, but wrote separately to stress that that it was “by no means obvious” that “someone who has lost his license would continue to drive.” Citing a joint amicus brief filed by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Cato Institute, the Institute for Justice, R Street, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Kagan noted that “most license suspensions do not relate to driving at all; what they most relate to is being poor.”

The case called into question Glover’s fourth amendment rights.  That amendment protects an individual’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that no warrants shall be issued, “but upon probable cause.”

“Today’s ruling makes clear that the Fourth Amendment does not require the patrol officers who keep our streets and highways safe to suspend their common sense when they put on their uniforms,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement.

However Justice Sotomayor strongly disagreed and warned the ruling “destroys” Fourth Amendment requirements for “individualized suspicion and “impermissibly and unnecessarily reduces the state’s burden of proof.”

“Although Justice Kagan’s rare concurring opinion paints today’s ruling as being limited to the idiosyncrasies of Kansas state law, it remains to be seen whether that’s more of a prediction or an aspiration,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

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