A Kansas police officer on traffic patrol stopped Defendant’s car for the sole reason that the car’s registered owner had a suspended license. Defendant turned out to be the registered owner, and was arrested. The Kansas Supreme Court held that, without further suspicion that the current driver was, in fact, the registered owner of the car, a stop solely premised on information that the registered owner had a suspended license violated the Fourth Amendment. Kansas petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, which was granted.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the country increasingly use Automatic License Plate Readers (“ALPRs”) to assess which vehicles to pull over during routine traffic patrol. ALPRs can tell police in real-time whether the registered owner of the car has a suspended license, as well as a plethora of other public and private information. But the registered owner of a vehicle is not always the driver of the vehicle. This is especially so in poor and minority communities, which are also more likely to be monitored by police ALPRs. Kansas’s proposed rule, combined with police use of ALPRs, would allow police to efficiently determine every vehicle whose registered owner has a suspended license, and then pull over licensed drivers who have committed no traffic violations.
A Kansas police officer on routine patrol, upon running a car’s plates through the Kansas Department of Revenue file service, learned that the registered owner of the car had a suspended driver’s license. The deputy did not observe any traffic violations or suspicious behavior; he initiated the stop solely on his assumption that the driver was the registered owner. The deputy also did not attempt to corroborate his assumption that the driver was the registered owner. The driver turned out to be the registered owner and was arrested.
Investigatory stops, in which police stop an individual to determine whether the individual has or is planning to commit a crime, are permissible under the Fourth Amendment when police have a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual has committed or is planning to commit a crime. Reasonable suspicion must be based on “specific, objective facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant” the intrusion on the individual’s right to privacy. The Supreme Court has previously held that random stops to find unlicensed drivers violate the Fourth Amendment.
Recently, the Supreme Court has carefully considered the implications of new technology on Fourth Amendment rules. For instance, in Carpenter v. United States, the Court declined to extend an exception to the Fourth Amendment to cell site location data because of the qualitative and quantitative differences between that evidence and the evidence the exception was originally grounded on. Similarly, in Riley v. California, the Court found that an exception to the warrant requirement did not apply to cell phones.
Kansas District Court
The only question at issue before the district court was whether knowledge that a car’s registered owner has a suspended license constitutes reasonable suspicion. The district court found in favor of the Defendant and suppressed the evidence. The judge cited her personal experience in owning three cars, two of which are primarily driven by family members, to support her finding the inference that the driver was the registered owner of the vehicle was not a reasonable inference from the known facts.
Kansas Court of Appeals
The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision. The court found that, when an officer knows that the vehicle’s registered owner has a suspended license, and the officer is unaware of any evidence that the driver is not the registered owner, the officer’s inference that the owner is the driver is reasonable.
Kansas Supreme Court
The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. The court identified two assumptions which, when stacked, comprised the “owner-is-the-driver presumption.” First, the officer assumed that the registered owner was the primary driver of the vehicle. Second, the officer assumed that individuals with suspended licenses would continue to drive. The assumptions, taken together, were impermissible because they attribute “a broad and general criminal inclination on the part of suspended drivers.” The presumption also switched the burden from the police, who ordinarily have to show reasonable suspicion, to the driver, who has to now give some indicia that they are not the registered owner. Finally, the court found that the presence of Defendant’s car on the road “was not readily indicative of a crime” because the Defendant could have legally allowed a licensed driver to operate the vehicle.
In this case, the growing use of ALPRs, which give police unprecedented access to information about vehicles on the road, will likely dramatically expand traffic stops. Because ALPRs are more heavily used in poor communities and in communities of people of color, these stops will disproportionately impact these communities.