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U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Police Officers Can Pull Over Cars Simply Because Car Owner’s Driver’s License Is Suspended or Revoked


In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a traffic stop case that was of supreme importance to Fourth Amendment rights, finding that police can pull over a driver simply because the car is registered to someone whose driver’s license is suspended or revoked. In doing so, the Court overturned the state supreme court, which ruled for the defendant in finding that the officer made two unreasonable assumptions in pulling him over: One, that a vehicle’s owner is likely the primary driver, and, two, that someone whose driver’s license is suspended or revoked is likely to disregard the suspension or revocation and continue to drive the car.

Majority Opinion Calls It “Common Sense,” But Also Qualifies the Assumption

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, basing the ruling on what he termed “common sense,” indicating that officers can make “reasonable inferences,” such as assuming that the owner of the car was driving while his license was revoked. However, he also qualified the decision, indicating that circumstances would be different if, for example, the individual whose license was suspended or revoked was in his 60s and the individual driving the car was in their 20s.

Concurrence: This Is Specific to Kansas, And Does Not Apply for Suspended Licenses in Other States

In a concurring opinion, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan pointed out that in the state where this took place (Kansas), driver’s licenses are only revoked when individuals have a history of completely disregarding the law, indicating that the ‘allowance’ provided in this decision is very state-specific. However, they also noted that the result would be different if the driver’s license was only suspended (as opposed to revoked) because, in a number of states, driver’s licenses are suspended for various reasons unrelated to breaking the law, such as failing to pay child support. The concurrence also listed other information available to officers that would make such traffic stops illegal.

Dissent: This Opens the Door for Officers to Automatically Have Reasonable Suspicion in Traffic Stops

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the case, pointing out that the decision made by the majority opened the door to allowing officers to “find” reasonable suspicion based on “nothing more than a demographic profile.” Justice Sotomayor also pointed out that the burden of proof has always been on the police officer to demonstrate that they were acting within the confines of the law, while the majority’s decision now shifts that burden to the defendant.

How Are Police Interpreting the Decision?

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined criminal defendants’ rights. Its decisions—and how officers interpret its decisions—determine our rights when it comes to searches, arrests, seizures, interrogations, investigations, and more. Based on reports of how this decision was interpreted by police, unfortunately, the impression and understanding of the case was that the Court upheld the reasonableness of the traffic stop based on the officer’s assumption that the driver was also the vehicle owner, and that this was perfectly legal even though there was no other observable violation. Ultimately, the take home for police appears to be that “a police officer’s common sense is to be relied upon when making reasonable suspicion determinations.”

If You Are Facing Charges, Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney for Help

As a result, there is no question that this is going to affect the rights of millions of people; people who will be subject to an illegal search and seizure; and who may be arrested as a result. If you have been charged with a crime, contact experienced NYC criminal attorney Mark I. Cohen, Esq. today for assistance.


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