Supreme Court rules in favor of police in recent traffic stop case

In some cases, a driver may question the legality of a traffic stop. This can involve allegations the stop was a violation of the driver's constitutional rights. The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) recently agreed to hear a case that makes such an accusation.

Morning patrol and database search leads to a traffic stop

The case involves a Sheriff's Deputy during a routine morning patrol. During his patrol, he noticed a 1995 Chevy pickup and ran the registration. The officer states he had no reason to run the registration. He did not observe a traffic violation, he did not see anything suspicious within the vehicle, he did not even see the driver. The review showed the registered owner of the vehicle had a revoked driver's license. The officer presumed the driver was the registered owner and initiated a traffic stop.

The registered driver was driving, and the officer charged the driver as a habitual violator for driving with a revoked license.

Driver argues stop was an unreasonable search

The driver fought the charges, stating the stop was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the stop. Lower courts held in favor of the driver. In a notable holding, the trail judge explained that she herself had three vehicles registered in her name and rarely drove two of them. As such, it did not seem reasonable to presume the registered driver was behind the wheel.

Supreme Court weighs in

SCOTUS disagreed. The SCOTUS holding includes a discussion on the definition of reasonable suspicion. The justices clarify that this standard is lower than another Fourth Amendment standard, probable cause. It takes less to satisfy the reasonable suspicion requirement to justify the stop. They also note that the Fourth Amendment allows an officer to "initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity." In this case, the majority stated the presence of a revoked license met this requirement.

The majority was careful to note the importance of a narrow interpretation of the holding. Critics, including dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, voiced concern the holding result in a "broad and unlimited" expansion of an officer's ability to conduct a traffic stop. The majority attempts to avoid this issue with the importance of the totality of the circumstances. This legal term means that the reasonableness of this stop depends on the details of this case. If the officer had noticed someone who did not meet the description of the driver was behind the wheel, the stop would not be reasonable. The court provides the example of observing a young woman driving when registration data shows an older male. In such cases, additional facts would be required to justify a stop.

Impact on other cases

A holding from SCOTUS is law throughout the country. As such, this holding could impact similar cases. Those who are facing similar charges resulting from evidence gathered at a traffic stop are wise to seek legal counsel. This case demonstrates how this area of law is evolving. An attorney experienced in criminal matters such as these can better ensure these changes are considered when building a defense.