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On The Front Lines

Blank Check Policing: Cops Stop Cars Registered to Unlicensed Owners, Whether or Not Owners Are Behind the Wheel

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging the police practice of stopping cars registered to unlicensed owners, whether or not the owners are behind the wheel (such vehicles are often driven by licensed family members and friends) and in the absence of specific wrongdoing.

In an amicus curiae brief filed with the Supreme Court in State of Kansas v. Glover, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that allowing police to stop a vehicle anytime the registered owner is unlicensed gives police too much leeway to violate the standards established by the Fourth Amendment requiring particularized and articulable evidence that the specific individual being stopped has, is, or soon will be engaged in unlawful conduct.

Affiliate attorneys D. Alicia Hickok, Mark D. Taticchi and Victoria L. Andrews of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, in Philadelphia, Pa., assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in Glover.

“This kind of traffic stop contributes to what I call ‘blank check policing,’ in which police officers have been given free range to pull anyone over for a variety of dubious reasons, as long as they can provide a palatable pretext for doing so,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This free-handed approach to traffic stops—frequently sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court—has resulted in drivers being stopped for windows that are too heavily tinted, for driving too fast, driving too slow, failing to maintain speed, following too closely, improper lane changes, distracted driving, screeching a car’s tires, and leaving a parked car door open for too long.’”

The case arose after Deputy Mark Mehrer, while on patrol in his police car, called in the license plate number of a 1995 Chevrolet pickup to the Kansas Department of Revenue and requested information about the vehicle, which was registered to Charles Glover, whose Kansas driver’s license had been revoked. Despite the fact that Mehrer had not observed any traffic violation or other criminal offense by the pickup’s driver and did not know the identity of the person driving the vehicle, Mehrer initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle. The sole basis for the stop was the deputy’s assumption that Glover was driving the vehicle. Glover was, in fact, driving the vehicle and was subsequently charged with driving as an habitual offender, which carries a penalty of at least 90 days in jail and a fine of at least $1500. Glover filed a motion to suppress any evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless stop of his vehicle, arguing that the deputy did not have reasonable suspicion to support the seizure of the pickup and so violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court of Kansas, which ruled in favor of Glover, holding that the deputy’s assumption and suspicion that Glover was driving a vehicle registered to him at the time the vehicle was stopped was not a “reasonable” suspicion. The state then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and decide the constitutional issue presented.

In filing an amicus brief in support of Glover, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute argue that the Fourth Amendment requires more particularized suspicion for interfering with the liberty of citizens. To this end, Institute attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to reject the state’s proposed rule that because some drivers disregard license-suspension orders, police are justified in detaining any vehicle owned by a person whose license is suspended.  

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