On The Front Lines
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Blank Check Policing, Allows Cops to Stop Cars Registered to Unlicensed Owners, Whether or Not Owners Are Driving
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In an 8-1 ruling that empowers police to carry out dubious traffic stops and paves the way for further abuses of law enforcement’s “blank check policing” privileges, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the police practice of stopping and questioning drivers if their cars are registered to unlicensed owners, in the absence of specific wrongdoing by the driver and whether or not the owners are behind the wheel (such vehicles are often driven by licensed family members and friends). With Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, the Court justified its decision in Kansas v. Glover on the basis that police can assume that persons whose licenses have been revoked are criminals who will continue to violate the law. The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that allowing police to stop a vehicle whenever the owner is unlicensed violates the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that a stop be supported by specific evidence that a driver engaged in unlawful conduct. In their brief, Rutherford Institute attorneys had 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.
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 rein 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—now allowed 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, 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 Chevrolet pickup to the Kansas Department of Revenue and was told that the vehicle’s registered owner, Charles Glover, had his Kansas driver’s license revoked. Although Mehrer had not observed any traffic or criminal offense by the driver and did not know who was driving, Mehrer initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle based solely on the 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 the stop illegal because the deputy’s assumption that Glover was driving a vehicle registered to him at the time the vehicle was stopped was not a “reasonable” suspicion. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the deputy had reasonable suspicion for the stop because it was “common sense” that persons whose licenses are revoked will continue to break the law by driving.