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By: Peter Dooley
The scope of reasonable judgments that police officers can make during traffic-stops under the Fourth Amendment was recently widened, at least narrowly, by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 6th in their 8-1 decision in Kansas v. Glover. The stop in question involved a deputy with the Douglas County Kansas Sheriff’s Office observing an individual operating a 1995 Chevy pick-up. Upon running the license plate information, the deputy discovered that the registered owner of that truck had a revoked license and that the model of the truck listed on the registration was the exact model he observed.
While the stop was conducted and the deputy’s suspicion was confirmed afterwards, it also unearthed serious concerns related to Fourth Amendment searches and seizures and the required reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person stopped has, is, or is about to commit a crime. These concerns led the Kansas Supreme Court to publish an Opinion deciding that the stop was “only a hunch” and lacked the “factual basis” required for reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment. Justice Thomas summarizes the Court’s response and reasoning for reversing the decision best when he states that the deputy’s search was valid because, from the facts at hand, “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 majority were not persuaded by Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion that the inference was unreasonable as it was not grounded in “law enforcement training and experience.” The majority explained that case precedent clearly states that police officers may use similar commonsense inferences and judgments in reasonable suspicion determinations; these decisions need not require specialized training or experience as justification but, instead, can be “a reasonable inference made by ordinary people on a daily basis.” The argument that this destroys the requirement for specific and articulable facts failed similarly as the Opinion explains that it was not merely a hunch or probability determination here, but that the stop was actually made in reliance upon the facts regarding the license plate database information and officer observations. Justice Thomas writes, “combining database information and commonsense judgments in this context is fully consonant with this Court’s Fourth Amendment precedents.”
Potentially due to concerns in the Kagan Concurrence, the narrowness of the holding is highlighted throughout, and the Court explains how the presence of additional facts can easily dispel reasonable suspicion. Commonsense inferences made before a stop must be based on database information that provides a logical and strong inference of lawlessness. Additionally, officers cannot ignore the fact that the driver they observe does not match the age, gender, or other known descriptions of the individual or vehicle. However, as no such information existed prior to the stop in Glover and the database information was sufficiently conclusive, the officer’s inference was reasonable, and his actions were justified.
When looking to the real-world application of this decision, one takeaway is the Court’s continued preference for reliance on judicial sense and commonsense determinations as opposed to those requiring statistics or training as justification. More specifically law enforcement officers may now use commonsense inferences in Fourth Amendment traffic-stops such as determining that the owner is likely the person seen driving the car and similar determinations with the assistance of databases. This decision is not groundbreaking but is an important victory on the side of general likelihoods and commonsense reasonable suspicion determinations in the constant tug-of-war between effective law enforcement practices and Fourth Amendment protections.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Peter Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.