580 U.S. ___; 140 S.Ct. 1183 (2020).

One-Sentence Takeaway: An investigative traffic stop made after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner’s driver’s license has been revoked is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, unless the officer has information negating an inference that the owner is driving the vehicle.

Summary:  Police officers ran the license plate of a pickup truck they observed on routine patrol, and discovered that Defendant, the registered owner of the vehicle, had a revoked Kansas driver’s license.  The officers initiated a traffic stop and discovered that Defendant was driving the vehicle, which led to a citation for driving with a revoked license.

Defendant sought suppression and challenged the citation  arguing that the police did not possess reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle based only on the inference that the registered owner of a vehicle would be driving it.

The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to suppress.  The court of appeals reversed, holding that “it was reasonable for [the police officer] to infer that the driver was the owner of the vehicle” because “there were specific and articulable facts from which the officer’s common-sense inference gave rise to a reasonable suspicion.”  The Kansas Supreme Court, however, reversed. According to the Kansas high court, the officer did not have reasonable suspicion because his inference that Defendant was behind the wheel amounted to “only a hunch” that Defendant was engaging in criminal activity.

The United States Supreme Court reversed the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision, holding that “when the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the stop is reasonable.”  Writing for the Majority, Justice Thomas reasoned that, “[b]efore initiating the stop, [the police officer] observed an individual operating a ... pickup truck with [a] Kansas plate...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, [the officer] drew the commonsense inference that [Defendant] 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 reasonableness of [the officer]’s inference. Such is the case with all reasonable inferences. The reasonable suspicion inquiry falls considerably short of 51% accuracy, see United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 274, 122 S.Ct. 744, 151 L.Ed.2d 740 (2002), for, as we have explained, ‘[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect,’ Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014).” 

REFERENCE DESK

United States v. Nguyen, 20-cr-00100-FDW-DSC (W.D.N.C. Dec. 3, 2020):

Defendant relies on Kansas v. Glover, where the Supreme Court recently evaluated whether an officer’s assumption that the driver of a car is its registered owner is reasonable under the 4th Amendment.

In Kansas, a law enforcement officer initiated a traffic stop during a routine patrol when a license plate search revealed the driver of the car had a revoked license.  The officer assumed the person driving the car was indeed the registered owner with the revoked license and, based solely on this assumption, the officer initiated a traffic stop. The driver of the car sued, asserting that the officer’s assumption was not reasonable under the 4th Amendment. Id. In evaluating whether the officer’s assumption was permissible, the Supreme Court held that a traffic stop initiated pursuant solely to such assumption is reasonable so long as “the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle.”

United States v. Felder, 19-cr-343 (D.N.J. May 21, 2021):

During the pendency of the present matter, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Kansas v. Glover, 140 S. Ct. 1183 (2020) which held that it was reasonable for a law enforcement officer to assume that the owner of a vehicle was the person driving, but noted that it may not be reasonable to make such a leap where the circumstances negate the assumption. Id. at 1191. The Government argues that the Glover decision does not alter the result in this matter as the Officers had independent bases to conduct a motor vehicle stop due to the parking violation and improperly tinted windows, and because they did not have any reason to believe the driver of the Vehicle was not its owner until they approached the Vehicle, and at this point Officer Reddick observed heroin in Felder’s pocket. ECF No. 16 at 4 (“Most importantly, almost immediately upon approaching the driver’s side of the vehicle, one of the officers observed bricks of heroin in the pocket of Felder’s sweatshirt. In short, Glover justified the officers’ initial approach, Felder’s nervous and evasive behavior justified the officers’ continue[d] investigation, and the officer’s observation of packaging consistent with bricks of heroin justified his eventual seizure and arrest.”). Defendant responds that Glover is dispositive in his favor because the reason he was stopped was a suspended license and it was clear that Felder, who is six feet tall and 330 pounds, was not the registered owner of the Vehicle, maintaining that “any other reason now asserted for the stop is pretextual.” ECF No. 19 at 2; id. at 2 n.3. Despite the parties differing views of Glover, the Court holds that the decision does not alter the outcome of the present motion to suppress. In Glover, the Supreme Court “emphasize[d] the narrow scope of [its] holding” and instructed that a court must consider “the totality of the circumstances” when determining whether a seizure is supported by reasonable suspicion. Glover, 140 S. Ct. at 1191. Here, the totality of the circumstances, including the fact that the Vehicle was double-parked and had improperly tinted windows, in addition the NCIC check, provide reasonable suspicion for approaching the Vehicle. Additionally, while Officer Reddick became aware that Felder was not the owner of the Vehicle upon approach, he also viewed heroin in Felder’s pocket at this time. Accordingly, Felder’s motion to suppress must be denied according to Glover’s guidance.

Lucas v. Florida, 319 So.3d 792 (2021):

Glover involved whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a pickup truck based solely upon who owned the vehicle, where the title-owner’s driver’s license had been revoked, without identifying who was actually driving the vehicle.   Under this enforcement policy, innocent would-be drivers like spouses, children, relatives, and friends of the vehicle’s formal owner could be stopped because of who owned the vehicle, even if the owner wasn’t driving.  But despite the risk of stopping innocent drivers, Glover concluded that reasonable suspicion exists to stop the vehicle based upon the status of the registered owner.  Reasonable suspicion needed not to rule out the possibility that innocent drivers inevitably would be stopped under such a policy. This decision rested in part on a principle established earlier by the Court that “the relevant inquiry [is] not whether particular conduct is innocent or guilty, but the degree of suspicion that attaches to particular types of noncriminal acts.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 10 (1989). Officers contemplating traffic stops can rely on reasonable probabilities of guilty conduct and needn’t ultimately have their decision proven correct.  The Glover principle helps here because the officer confronted a car whose occupants could have been driving innocently on dealer-connected business, but where the circumstances—after midnight, on a weekend, at a convenience store, with multiple people in the car, some distance from its registered address—indicated to him that the car wasn’t being used for dealer-business activity. Under these circumstances, the officer made an objectively reasonable call to stop the car and check whether the dealer tag was being lawfully used.

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