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Right now, cops can easily track and pull over millions of people not because they’re swerving or speeding, but because they’re driving a car registered to a person with a suspended license.
Now, the Supreme Court could soon put an end to those traffic stops to uphold drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches or seizures. It's not always clear that the driver of the car is also the registered owner, which means people could get pulled over even if they weren't doing anything wrong.
The case, Kansas v. Glover, addresses whether cops can pull someone over because the car they’re driving is registered to someone with a suspended license. To initiate these stops, police rely on the assumption that a car’s driver is also its owner, but drivers often share cars with their family members or friends. And being pulled over can subject them to searches or arrests they may not have otherwise had to deal with.
That’s especially dangerous for people of color, according to advocates. Black men like Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Samuel Debose were shot and killed by police in what started as routine traffic stops.
“The consequences for black drivers here are enormous when an officer is operating on an assumption that may or may not be true,” said said Lisa Foster, the co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which participated in a brief urging the Supreme Court to put an end to the stops. “We know that black drivers get pulled over … in some studies, at ten times the rate of white drivers; we know black drivers are more likely once they’re pulled over to be searched.”
Police say pulling someone over for a suspended license is necessary because the driver might be actively committing a crime, and the officer can always let the person go if they’re wrongly identified. Officers also want to be able to freely use automatic license plate readers — which have become standard in even the smallest police departments over the last decade — to pull someone over when it’s too difficult to manually scan a license plate, search for a description of the driver, and match that description.
But at least 11 million licenses across the country are suspended solely because of unpaid court or traffic debts and not because the indebted person is a dangerous driver, according to the “Free to Drive” campaign. That doesn’t even include people who have lost their licenses over unpaid child support, minor drug crimes, or other non-traffic offenses.
“The consequences for black drivers here are enormous."
Before automatic license plate readers, cops often only discovered a driver’s license was suspended after they had pulled them over for some other traffic violation. And if the Supreme Court affirms the practice of pulling over anyone suspected of driving with a suspended license, police will essentially have a database of cars ready to stop, according to William Maurer, the managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s office in Washington state. The non-profit law firm joined with the Fines and Fees Justice Center in urging he Supreme Court to reconsider the stops.
“It creates a two-tiered justice system: People who are able to afford the fines and fees debt that accompany things like traffic tickets and parking tickets will not feel this intrusion,” Maurer said.
The case stems from a 2016 traffic stop where a Kansas police officer scanned the license plate of a pickup truck and noticed it was registered to a person with a suspended license. Based on the assumption that the owner of the truck was also the person driving the car, the officer pulled over Charles Glover Jr., who wasn’t committing any other traffic violation. It turned out the car was Glover’s, and he was cited for driving unlawfully.
But Glover appealed, arguing his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the officer didn’t have a good enough reason to pull him over. The car could’ve just as easily been driven by someone who wasn’t Glover, but the officer wouldn’t have had any way of knowing until they had already initiated the traffic stop. The Kansas Supreme Court took Glover’s side, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court were to rule in Glover’s favor, several state attorneys general, the National Fraternal Order of Police, and even the Trump administration argue that public safety would be put at risk. But if the decision is struck down, they say cops will have the official greenlight they need to to make more routine traffic stops and keep suspended drivers off the road.
During arguments earlier this month, the Supreme Court appeared to lean toward the side taken by police and prosecutors. Justices, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said that officers use common sense when they assume the driver of a car is also its owner and shouldn’t have to rely on much else.
“Reasonable suspicion does not have to be based on statistics, it does not have to be based on specialized experience. As we've said often, it can be based on common sense,” Roberts said.
Cover image: Policeman pulls over a driver for speeding, getting out of police car to write a traffic ticket. (kali9 via Getty Images)