SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS STOPPING VEHICLES REGISTERED TO DRIVERS WITH A SUSPENDED LICENSE

In an April 6, 2020 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) articulated in Kansas v. Glover what has been established in Massachusetts since 2002: the police may, in the absence of any contrary evidence, reasonably conclude that a vehicle is likely being driven by its registered owner and effectuate a permissible motor vehicle stop if the registered owner holds a suspended license. While this standard may appear to give law enforcement great investigative latitude, both the Massachusetts 2002 ruling in Commonwealth v. Deramo and the decision in Glover have an important factual wrinkle that added to the basis of reasonable suspicion. The defendants in both cases were known to have a proclivity for breaking driving laws. This caveat suggests that it may be a different question where the police have no knowledge of a defendant’s willingness to ignore a license suspension.

Commonwealth v. Deramo

In Deramo, an officer initiated a traffic stop after he observed a vehicle that was known to belong to a driver with a lengthy suspension on his license. 436 Mass. 40, 42-43 (2002). Two months prior to the stop, the officer and the defendant had a face to face- interaction, where the defendant admitted to driving his vehicle to work. Later that same day, the officer ran the registration of the defendant’s vehicle, revealing that the defendant had two lengthy license suspensions in effect, including a two year suspension for OUI and a four year suspension as a habitual traffic offender. At the time of the stop two months later, the officer identified the same vehicle owned by the defendant, but did not run his information to determine whether there had been any change to his license status.

The defendant argued that the officer recognized only the vehicle, not the driver, and that mere identification of the vehicle did not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was operating the vehicle. Although the office had not included his identification of the defendant as the driver in his police report, he testified that he had made such an identification at a hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress. The SJC found that even had the officer not recognized the driver, he could, “in the absence of any contrary evidence, reasonably conclude that a vehicle is likely being driven by its registered owner.” Id. at 43. The SJC held that “[w]hile it is certainly possible that someone other than a vehicle's registered owner may be operating the vehicle on any given occasion, the likelihood that the operator is the owner is strong enough to satisfy the reasonable suspicion standard.” Id. at 43-44.

The SJC also found that the officer’s knowledge of the defendant’s suspension as of two months before the stop was a reasonable length of time for the officer to infer that the multiple-year suspension was still in effect. Id. at 44. Using case law from other jurisdictions, the SJC further asserted that six months is a reasonable amount of time for an investigating officer to presume the suspension is still in effect (State v. Yeargan, 958 S.W.2d 626, 633 (Tenn. 1997)), but that eight years is not (Boyd v. State, 758 So. 2d 1032, 1034-1036 (Miss. App. 2000). Id. at 44, 45. On the claim that the defendant’s license could have been restored on some grounds, for instance hardship, the Court found that the standard of reasonable suspicion does not require that the officer rule out all other possibilities prior to executing a traffic stop. Id. at 45.

Based upon these facts, the SJC concluded that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle, and that the motion to suppress was properly denied.

Kansas v. Glover

In Glover, a Kansas deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office was on patrol, and observed a 1995 pickup truck. The deputy ran the plate, and found the registered owner, Glover, to have a revoked driver’s license in the state of Kansas. 206 L.Ed.2d 412, 416 (U.S. 2020). The state of Kansas “almost never revokes a license except for serious or repeated driving offenses. See Kan. Stat. Ann. §8-254 (2001).” Id. at 424, Kagan and Ginsburg, concurring. “Crimes like vehicular homicide and manslaughter, or vehicular flight from a police officer, provoke a license revocation; so too do multiple convictions for moving traffic violations within a short time.” Id. “In other words, a person with a revoked license has already shown a willingness to flout driving restrictions.” Id.

The defendant argues that the officer’s inference that the owner was driving was not grounded in an objective basis, such as training or experience, and that he lacked the necessary “specific and articulable facts” that he was stopping the particular person suspected of criminal activity, thereby permitting the officer to rely exclusively on probabilities to justify the stop. Id. at 422. The majority acknowledged that the reasonable suspicion standard is less demanding than that of probable cause and allows for commonsense judgments on human behavior to fill in where specific facts are missing. Id. at 419-420. The Court pointed to Kansas’s particular regulatory scheme, wherein license revocation is a result of a pattern of disregard for the law or unfit driving. Id. at 420. The Court also cited a study claiming that 75% of drivers with revoked licenses continue to drive. Id. The Court thus asserts that to infer one with a revoked license will continue to drive is “common sense”. Id. at 417. Based upon these particular facts, where the officer knew that the license plate was linked to a truck matching the observed vehicle and that the registered owner of the vehicle had a revoked Kansas license, the stop was reasonable.

However, where the Court expressly held that its holding was “narrow” and emphasized that all seizures must be justified at its inception. “The standard takes into account the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture.” Id. at 423, quoting Navarette v. California, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1687 (2014). Thus, 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-sixties but observes that the driver is in her mid-twenties, then the totality of the circumstances would not ‘raise a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.’” Id. at 423.

The dissent stressed that the majority opinion in Glover removes the burden of proof from law enforcement to prove that they had, prior to a stop, particular knowledge of a specific individual suspected of wrongdoing and allows an officer to “effectuate [a] roadside stop[ ] whenever they lack information negating an inference that a vehicle’s unlicensed owner is its driver.” Id. at 428. The concurring opinion provides for a future potential for those with more complete records in their litigation to cast doubt upon the reasonableness of an officer’s suspicion leading to a similar stop. Id. at 426. While it certainly provides law enforcement with a wider opportunity to stop a vehicle, it is important for lawyers to recognize the possible factual distinctions and look for all additional facts that might dispel reasonable suspicion of the officer.

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