Larry E. Holtz, Esq.
TRAFFIC STOPS: THE “OWNER IS THE DRIVER” ASSUMPTION
May a law enforcement officer, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, initiate an investigative traffic stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner has a revoked driver’s license? In Kansas v. Glover (U.S. 2020), the United States Supreme Court said, “Yes.”
The facts in Glover unfolded in late April 2016, when Douglas County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Mehrer, while on patrol, ran a registration check on a 1995 Chevy pickup truck. This revealed that the truck was registered to Charles Glover, Jr. and that his driver’s license was revoked. The deputy did not observe any traffic violations and he did not attempt to identify the driver of the truck. Instead, he initiated a traffic stop based solely on the information that the driver’s license of the registered owner of the truck was revoked and on his assumption that the driver was the registered owner. The driver (Glover) turned out to be the registered owner and the officer issued him a citation.
Finding the stop lawful, the Court held that, so long as there are no facts negating the “inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the stop is reasonable.” In this case, before initiating the traffic stop, Deputy Mehrer observed an individual operating a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup truck with a specific Kansas license 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, Deputy Mehrer drew the commonsense inference that Glover 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 Deputy Mehrer’s inference. Such is the case with all reasonable inferences. The reasonable suspicion inquiry falls considerably short of 51% accuracy,” for, as the Court has explained, “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect.” Moreover, the “inference that the driver of a car is its registered owner does not require any specialized training; rather, it is a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.”
“Glover’s revoked license does not render Deputy Mehrer’s inference unreasonable, either. Empirical studies demonstrate what common experience readily reveals: Drivers with revoked licenses frequently continue to drive and, therefore, pose safety risks to other motorists and pedestrians.”
The Court paused to note, however, that the “reasonable suspicion” standard takes into account “the totality of the circumstances – the whole picture.” As a result, “the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion.” For example, “if an officer knows that the registered owner of the vehicle is in his mid-60s, but observes that the driver is in her mid-20s, then the totality of the circumstances would not raise a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.” Here, “Deputy Mehrer possessed no exculpatory information – let alone sufficient information to rebut the reasonable inference that Glover was driving his own truck – and thus the stop was justified.”
Larry E. Holtz has served as a Detective Sergeant with the Atlantic City, New Jersey, Police Department; a Deputy Attorney General for the state of New Jersey, and an Assistant County Prosecutor. Presently, Mr. Holtz is the Managing Editor of Blue360° Media, the largest US provider of legal information which is solely focused on serving law enforcement.
Mr. Holtz is a certified police trainer and teaches on a regular basis. He is a member of the bar in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia and is admitted to practice before the federal bar in the District of New Jersey and the Third Circuit.