In a self-described “narrow” decision, the Supreme Court holds that, in the absence of information negating the inference that the owner was driving, a police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop a car based on the fact the registered owner of the car had a revoked driver’s license.
The officer in this case saw someone operating a pickup truck with Kansas plate 295ATJ. He knew that Glover, the registered owner of the truck, had a revoked license and that the model of the registered truck matched the vehicle he saw. “From these three facts, [the officer] drew the commonsense inference that Glover was likely the driver of the vehicle, which provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop.” (Slip op. at 4).
But wait! Sometimes a vehicle is being driven by another family member or a friend! What about that?
The fact that the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle does not negate the reasonableness of [the officer’s] inference. Such is the case with all reasonable inferences. The reasonable suspicion inquiry “falls considerably short” of 51% accuracy, see United States v. Arvizu, 534 U. S. 266, 274 (2002), for, as we have explained, “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect,” Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U. S. 54, 60 (2014).
Glover’s revoked license does not render [the officer’s] inference unreasonable either. Empirical studies demonstrate what common experience readily reveals: Drivers with revoked licenses frequently continue to drive and therefore to pose safety risks to other motorists and pedestrians. …
Although common sense suffices to justify this inference, Kansas law reinforces that it is reasonable to infer that an individual with a revoked license may continue driving. The State’s license-revocation scheme covers drivers who have already demonstrated a disregard for the law or are categorically unfit to drive. …. (Slip op. at 4-5).
This is not to say, however, that it is always reasonable to stop a vehicle whose owner has a suspended or revoked license:
We emphasize the narrow scope of our holding. Like all seizures, “[t]he officer’s action must be ‘justified at its inception.’” Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev., Humboldt Cty., 542 U. S. 177, 185 (2004) (quoting United States v. Sharpe, 470 U. S. 675, 682 (1985)). “The standard takes into account the totality of the circumstances—the whole picture.” Navarette [v. California], 572 U. S. [393,] 397 [(2014)] (internal quotation marks omitted). As a result, the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion. See Terry [v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1,] 28 [(1968)]. 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.” [United States v.] Cortez, 449 U. S. [411,] 418 [(1981)]; Ornelas [v. United States], 517 U. S. [690,] 696 [(1996)] (“‘[e]ach case is to be decided on its own facts and circumstances’” (quoting Ker v. California, 374 U. S. 23, 33 (1963))). Here, [the officer] 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. (Slip op. at 9).
Two justices (Kagan and Ginsburg) concur, but stress that the outcome might be different if, under the state’s driver licensing scheme, Glover had lost his privileges for reasons other than his penchant for ignoring driving laws (e.g., for mere failure to pay a fine); or if there are two or more owners of the vehicle; or if the vehicle is used in a ride-sharing service (like Lyft or Uber). All of these scenarios present “additional facts” that might tip the balance against reasonable suspicion in a particular case. (Conurrence at 1-5).
Justice Sotomayor dissents, saying the majority flips the burden from the police (to justify the stop) to the driver (to show why the stop wasn’t reasonable) and “absolve[s] officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver where feasible.” (Dissent at 3-4).
Wisconsin reached this conclusion way back in State v. Newer, 2007 WI App 236, 306 Wis. 2d 193, 742 N.W.2d 923. For applications of Newer—and examples of the multifarious circumstances in which the officer’s knowledge of an owner’s licence status is (or isn’t) enough to justify the stop (or continuation of the stop)—see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.