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Vehicle Stops OK If Owner Has Expired License But Cops Don't Know Who's Driving

The war on the car continues. Police can now stop a vehicle without knowing who is driving if the registered owner has an expired or revoked license.

The United States Supreme Court's opinion in Kansas v. Glover also spells danger over the spread of automatic license plate recognition devices.

Until this opinion, officers either had to have specific suspicion that the driver was actually behind the wheel, or they could simply follow the vehicle until the driver committed a violation and give them a reason for a stop. Now an expired license for the owner IS the reason that justifies the stop.

At the center of the decision is the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prevents people from being subject to "unreasonable" searches and seizures. This may be but one word in the constitution, but it has led to yardage of shelf space being taken up by interpretations of the word, and the legal opinions, such as this one, that guide courts on what actions are 'reasonable' by law enforcement.

A traffic stop that does not lead to an arrest is legally called a Terry stop. A person is seized (prevented from leaving) but only for a brief period. As this a seizure but not an arrest (which has to be based on probable cause), the standard for that seizure - effectively a brief limitation of someone's freedom for an officer to investigate a crime or civil traffic violation - is reasonable articulable suspicion (some kind of basis with facts and not just a speculative hunch by the officer). The court said knowledge of the registered owner's expired or revoked license meets that standard to stop the vehicle, regardless of who is driving.

The decision is based on a state law case in Kansas in which the trial court allowed the information that followed the stop (traffic stops are often used to find other crimes as a pretext) - which in this case would have been information about the stop itself, who was driving, and what was said (though these details are not that extensively given in the opinion). The case went to the Kansas Supreme Court who also suppressed the evidence found as a result of a check on the vehicle's plate, revealing the owner's license was revoked. The state Supreme Court said as the officer did not know who was driving, it was a hunch. The United States Supreme Court disagreed.

It is worth noting that federal constitutional law is a 'floor' - a minimum constitutional standard about what the state can do - below which states cannot go. However, states are free to improve the rights of their citizens by suppressing or excluding evidence using their own state constitutions and court opinions that improve that minimum standard of official behavior. Maine's highest court is one of those that has repeatedly declined to do that. So, that makes this case particularly important for Mainers.

There is one caveat. If the officer can see that the owner is not driving (for instance if the registered owner is male and the driver is female, or the officer knows who the owner is and sees that the owner is not driving), the purpose of the stop would not be "reasonable" - the touchstone for Fourth Amendment cases.

But, expect these inconvenient facts to fail to make their way into police reports.

As is often the case too, it is not always the criminal defendant who gets stopped. It is you. So, the decision in Kansas v. Glover gives armed police officers yet another reason to stop more people.

The United States Supreme Court's opinion indirectly supports the rationale in a 2006 case decided by Maine's Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court. In State v. Tozier, 2006 ME 105, 905 A.2d 836 a state trooper ran a check on a vehicle's plates, which showed the owner had a suspended license. He saw that the driver was male, and only identified the defendant as the actual driver during the stop that followed. The trial court said the fact that the driver was male was insufficient for the fact-based suspicion required to conduct the stop. The Law Court overturned the trial court's decision to suppress the information, saying the information from the plate check was sufficient to conduct such stops, absent other circumstances that demonstrate the owner is not driving. This is exactly the same rationale as Kansas v. Glover.

The only distinguishing fact between the Tozier opinion and Glover is that, if the state trooper is to be believed, in Tozier the trooper noticed that the driver of the vehicle was male. In Glover, there were no other facts that the officer involved had to show that the vehicle he stopped was being driven by the registered owner (with the revoked license).

As a frog doesn't notice the boiling water until it is too late, this is one of a number of incremental steps taken by this federal Supreme Court, to the acquiescence of Maine's highest court, that slowly eats away at individual rights - and erodes your ability to be left alone, free from being stopped by a police officer.

So, if you borrow someone's car, you could now be stopped by an armed officer for no other reason than THEIR license has been revoked, suspended, or expired.

This article is a great summary of why a little opinion about stopping a vehicle over a revoked license is so important in a wider constitutional context:


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