The 4th Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But the Supreme Court has interpreted that protection pretty loosely when it comes to traffic stops, for which the police need only “reasonable suspicion” that the law is or has been broken. (The same indulgent standard applies when police stop and frisk a pedestrian.)
This week the justices heard arguments in a case that could make it even easier for the police to stop — and potentially search — a car. Ominously, the majority seemed likely to give police an additional benefit of the doubt.
The case stems from a 2016 incident in which a sheriff’s deputy in Douglas County, Kan., spotted a pickup truck and decided to run the vehicle’s license plate through a state registration database. The search turned up the information that Charles Glover Jr., the owner, had had his driver’s license revoked.
The deputy stopped the truck, which was being driven by Glover, and cited him for the offense of habitually driving with a suspended license.
This might seem an easy case. But Glover challenged the legality of the traffic stop, claiming that the deputy had made an unreasonable assumption that the owner of the car (whose license had been suspended) was in fact the person driving the car. (It doesn’t matter that it turned out that the driver was the owner; an unconstitutional search or seizure is unconstitutional even if it turns out that the suspect committed the offense.)
A lawyer for Kansas, backed by the U.S. Justice Department, told the justices on Nov. 4 that it’s a “common-sense inference” that the owner of a car is also the driver. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to agree, telling Glover’s lawyer that “if they’re relying on common sense, they don’t have to give you anything more than common sense.”
But is it really common sense that a car is being driven by its owner? Lots of people lend their cars to friends or family members.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that drivers whose licenses have been suspended might actually be less likely to be the driver of the car. Roberts pushed the opposite idea, that a driver with a suspended license would be more likely to drive anyway because he or she has “already broken the law in some sense.” Studies cited by Kansas in its appeal to the court suggest that many drivers with suspended licenses do continue to drive and are more hazardous on the road than are licensed drivers.
Even so, a significant amount of the time the driver won’t be the owner. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch suggested that the assumption that an owner of a car is the driver, or vice versa, may become less valid over time because “the next generation … often rents cars.”
Why does all this matter?
It’s already far too easy for the police to stop cars either under the “reasonable suspicion” standard or on the pretext of some minor violation, such as a broken taillight. If the court rules for Kansas, police will be able to stop a car based on the status of the owner’s driver’s license — even though it may be the owner’s son or daughter (or neighbor) behind the wheel.
And remember: A stop isn’t just a stop. It can lead to a search of the passenger compartment for weapons that can also result in the seizure of illegal drugs that are in plain view. Subjecting a driver to that invasion of privacy because of someone else’s suspended license is not “reasonable.”
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington.