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U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Police Can Stop Vehicles Simply If Car Owner’s License Is Revoked


On April 6, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers can stop and pull over vehicles based on a vehicle being registered to someone whose driver’s license has been suspended; based on the assumption that the individual driving the car is the same as the owner with a suspended driver’s license; and this does not violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.  In doing so, the Court overturned the state supreme court’s decision, which dictated that the police officer involved in this particular stop made two unreasonable assumptions in pulling the driver over: One, that the vehicle’s registered owner is the primary driver, and two, that the individual whose driver’s license is suspended or revoked will continue to drive even though their license is suspended or revoked.

The majority clearly pointed out that there are circumstances under which reasonable suspicion would not be appropriate; and also that the state where this took place – Kansas – is unusual in that it only revokes licenses for drivers that have “demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive.”  This is a clear indication that the holding does not necessarily apply to other states or circumstances, whereby someone’s driver’s license may be suspended or revoked for other reasons, such as failing to pay registration fees in a timely manner. Still, what is frightening about the decision is what officers involved in vehicle stops will take from it, which is that their common sense is always to be relied upon when making reasonable suspicion determinations, indicating that, as a result, a number of drivers could be subject to Fourth Amendment violations when it comes to traffic stops.

The “Commonsense” Opinion & Its Limits

In writing for the majority, Justice Thomas called this a case of “common sense,” although he does not provide an explanation as to why it is a common sense assumption that the individual with the suspended driver’s license is also the likely driver of the vehicle. The Court did, however, emphasize the “narrow scope” of its holding in elaborating that the presence of additional facts in other circumstances could completely dispel reasonable suspicion in those cases. For example, if the individual whose license is suspended is in their sixties, but the driver appears to be in their twenties, then reasonable suspicion would not exist that the individual being stopped was engaging in wrongdoing because they were driving with a suspended or revoked license.

Concurrence: This Is Only OK in Kansas, Where Licenses Are Revoked Only for Ignoring Driving Laws

In their concurrence, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, narrowed the approach even further and implied that the decision is essentially limited to Kansas, where license revocations are only allowed when an individual has a “penchant for ignoring driving laws.” Justice Kagan goes on to indicate that in another state, where driver’s licenses are suspended for a number of other reasons (such as failure to pay child support, for example), a driver’s lawlessness would not necessarily be implied, and therefore, there would be no implication that the driver was driving illegally. Justice Kagan also provided a number of ways that defendants could demonstrate that commonsense judgment would not apply in their cases.

The Dissent: The Court Has Impermissibly Shifted the Burden

Justice Sotomayor took a different approach, arguing that the majority’s opinion switches the burden to the defendant to prove that the circumstances did not justify the stop, when reasonable suspicion should be based solely on an officer’s experience or training. Specifically, she pointed out that the majority opened the door to finding reasonable suspicion “based on nothing more than a demographic profile.”

If You Have Been Pulled Over for Driving with A Revoked License, Contact Our Defense Attorneys

If you have been pulled over for driving with a suspended or revoked license in New York or New Jersey, or have otherwise been the victim of an illegal traffic stop, you need to consult with an experienced traffic offenses attorney as soon as possible. Contact the office of New York criminal defense attorney Phillip J. Murphy today for a free consultation and find out how we can help.







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