SCOTUS takes a commonsense approach to reasonable suspicion
At issue was a motor vehicle stop by a deputy sheriff based on a license plate check showing the registered owner’s driver’s license was revoked
Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court often come down to a narrow ruling based on a specific set of facts. The Supreme Court’s April 6 majority opinion in Kansas v. Glover (see decision in full below) is a case in point.
At issue was a motor vehicle stop by a deputy sheriff based on a license plate check showing the registered owner’s driver’s license was revoked. The vehicle stop disclosed the revoked owner, Charles Glover, operating the vehicle. He was charged as a habitual violator under Kansas law.
Glover subsequently filed a motion to suppress evidence seized during the stop. Neither he nor the deputy testified at the hearing. The parties instead stipulated to seven facts for the district court to consider. The district court granted the motion to suppress, the Court of Appeals reversed, and then the state Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, agreeing with the district court that the deputy sheriff did not have reasonable suspicion for the stop.
In an 8-1 majority opinion, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the reasonableness of the vehicle stop based on the deputy’s assumption that the registered owner of the vehicle was also the driver (this was stipulated fact #5 in the suppression hearing). Furthermore, as outlined in stipulated fact #6, there was no other observable violation or attempt to identify the driver; the stop was based solely on the fact the registration check indicated the vehicle owner was revoked.
Any officer who is familiar with the Supreme Court’s 2014 vehicle stop decisions in Navarette v. California and Heien v. North Carolina, both of which focused on the reasonable suspicion basis for a vehicle stop, could have comfortably predicted the result in this case. However, the rule, as Justice Thomas noted in his majority opinion, was not a broad one (see Section V, “We emphasize the narrow scope of our holding.”).
What is important in this case is Justice Thomas’ and the majority’s refutation of the narrow scope Justice Sotomayor attempted to place on police officers’ reasonable suspicion determinations. Where Justice Sotomayor’s dissent claimed reasonable suspicion is based solely on the learned experience and expertise gained from law enforcement work, Justice Thomas expressly rejected her argument. He said Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning, “defies the ‘common sense’ understanding of common sense.”
To be clear, the Supreme Court has previously held that a police officer’s experience and expertise can be the basis of a probable cause determination (see United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891 (1975) – “officers are entitled to draw reasonable inferences from these facts in light of their knowledge…and their prior experience.”) Yet, there is nothing within the Court’s jurisprudence to suggest probable cause determinations are limited only to a police officer’s experience and expertise. Reasonable suspicion provides no different results.
Even though it is a standard well below that of probable cause, a fact central to the dissent of Justice Douglas in Terry v. Ohio (1968), the basis for reasonable suspicion in Terry was if a “reasonably prudent man would have been warranted in believing” the suspect was armed. And, as the Court noted a year earlier in Camara v. Municipal Court: there is “no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search [or seize] against the invasion which the search [or seizure] entails.”
This language adds a layer to the Court’s analysis of the reasonable suspicion basis for the vehicle stop – the pervasive government regulation of motor vehicles and operators upon our nation’s roads (see New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986) – “In light of the important interests served by the VIN, the Federal and State Governments are amply justified in making it a part of the web of pervasive regulation that surrounds the automobile, and in requiring its placement in an area ordinarily in plain view from outside the passenger compartment.”) As Justice Thomas noted in his citation of Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979), the states have a “vital interest in ensuring that only those qualified to do so are permitted to operate motor vehicles [and] that licensing, registration and vehicle inspection requirements are being observed.”
In a more nuanced approach to the case, Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, outlined the practical limits of the Court’s holding that were not discussed in the majority opinion. Her concurrence noted that being bound to the stipulated facts provided no other inferences to be drawn other than that “a person with a revoked license has already shown a willingness to flout driving restrictions.” However, the result would be much different for her if the license was suspended, since suspension can result for reasons unrelated to road safety, for example, failure to pay child support. She also pointed to observational evidence – an elderly male registered owner, but the vehicle is driven by a younger female – as something that would “dispel reasonable suspicion.”
The moral of the story here is that a police officer’s common sense is to be relied upon when making reasonable suspicion determinations, not those of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.