When it comes to traffic stops, police are legally required to have a justifiable reason, known as a reasonable suspicion, to pull over the car. They can’t stop you just because they don’t like your hair or a bumper sticker on your car. In fact, even flipping the police off is considered protected free speech that cannot provide justification for a traffic stop. But the Supreme Court has recently ruled that traffic stops for expired driver’s licenses are legal, even though the officer has no way to know for sure that the driver is actually the owner who has the expired driver’s license.
The Supreme Court Case
The ruling came about as a result of a sheriff’s deputy running the license plate of a pickup truck he saw while on patrol. He saw that the registered owner, Charles Glover Jr., had a revoked driver’s license and then pulled over the vehicle, despite the fact that the driver did not violate any traffic laws. The deputy also did not attempt to identify whether the driver was, in fact, Glover. In other words, the only justification for the traffic stop was an expired driver’s license.
While Glover was actually the driver, he argued that the fact that the officer was not aware of this and based the traffic stop only on the fact that a vehicle’s driver’s license was expired was unconstitutional as the officer lacked reasonable suspicion because someone else easily could have been driving the vehicle.
That being said, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said this decision should be interpreted narrowly. In other words, if a similar situation occurred, but the driver was not the owner of the vehicle and had a valid driver’s license, the court may not interpret the situation the same way.
Traffic Stops for Expired Driver’s Licenses
The lesson is, for now that traffic stops for expired driver’s licenses are legal, even if the police officer has no idea whether or not the driver is the owner who has an expired license or may be a friend or family member with a valid license. Should an officer notice that the owner of a vehicle has an expired driver’s license and pull over a vehicle, this can be considered reasonable suspicion, even if the driver is someone else. In most cases, this would be grounds for letting the driver be on their way, but if the officer smells alcohol or marijuana or has another probable cause to search the vehicle, the traffic stop could turn into an arrest.
It’s also worth adding that the Supreme Court opinion requires the officer to rely on the totality of all circumstances before automatically stopping a vehicle. If the officer knows the registered owner with the revoked license is 60 but the driver looks 20, then the officer still lacks a reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle even under this ruling.
While it’s possible this situation could be appealed to the Supreme Court to see if they still feel the stop and arrest would be valid in this situation, it’s best to avoid getting in this situation at all. If your license has been suspended or has expired, avoid driving and perhaps even avoid loaning your vehicle out. If you are arrested though and feel the reason for the stop was invalid, please speak to your traffic offense lawyer to discuss how this may affect your case.
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