Imagine you’re driving your brother to work in his car. His license is suspended because of his inability to pay court fees from a previous minor violation, but he needs to get to his job so he can pay those fees. You’re following all traffic laws when suddenly you’re pulled over and the car is searched seemingly for no reason. Why? Well, the car is registered to your brother.
For millions of Americans, this bizarre scenario is a reality. Fortunately the Supreme Court can fix it.
This week, SCOTUS began hearing arguments in a major Fourth Amendment case, Kansas v. Glover. At stake is whether police violated Charles Glover’s Fourth Amendment rights when they pulled him over. They’d assumed Glover, whose license was suspended, was the driver. However, police now acknowledge that they made no effort to confirm this and that no traffic violations had been committed. Nonetheless, Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Mehrer decided to make the stop after running the plates of Glover’s pickup truck through his database.
This was a clear violation of Glover’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that “the officer lacked an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the unidentified driver did not have a valid driver’s license.”
In America, it’s relatively easy to lose your license. Research by the Free to Drive Coalition found that 44 states and the District of Columbia have some form of license revocation for unpaid court fees, and as a result, at least 11 million licenses have been suspended. But if Glover loses his case, everyone in those states will be at risk of having their cars stopped and searched.
Getting around at all, then, can become a serious hassle. If you lose your driver’s license, the cost of getting it back can be more than many can afford—some states charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you don’t have that kind of money, you can’t drive your own car, and if you don’t live near public transit, how are you supposed to get to work? And when work pays the bills, how do you pay off the fees you’re being punished for not paying in the first place?
So it goes. Licensing-based stops could be weaponized for revenue-generating purposes, what with the proliferation of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) that allow law enforcement to comb through data on millions of plates at any given time. ALPRs are often installed in electronic road signs and can be used to track the exact location of a given vehicle. If police notice a car associated with a suspended license, they could then drive to its location and make a stop, even if the person with the suspended license is not actually operating the vehicle and no traffic violation is being committed.
Obviously, these searches violate the Fourth Amendment. And from a policy perspective, they don’t make any sense. They keep non-violent individuals trapped in a cycle of incarceration that costs taxpayers money and does nothing to make us safer. In states with these laws, those with unpaid fines and fees can be incarcerated if it’s determined that their non-payment is “willful.” But for the government, the definition of what’s “willful” is rather nebulous. For example, a bedridden Missouri man was cited for letting his yard grow too long and later cited for trespassing on his own property after the city condemned it. He was saddled with $464 in fees while living off of $488 Social Security checks. His non-payment was clearly not willful, but it didn’t matter. He ended up behind bars.
Fortunately, there’s Supreme Court precedent that could end this harmful and unnecessary cycle.
In the 1979 case Delaware v. Prouse, the Supreme Court ruled that “Except where there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed…stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
William Prouse was driving lawfully, and police pulled him over for no reason other than to check his license. They eventually found marijuana during that stop, but the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t admissible evidence. All the police had done was to violate Prouse’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Certainly a favorable ruling in Glover won’t solve the underlying problem of suspended licenses for unpaid fees keeping people trapped in poverty and incarceration. That’s bigger than any one court case. But it would protect the Fourth Amendment rights of millions who need their livelihoods back. Letting them use their cars would certainly help facilitate that goal. For their sakes, let’s hope the justices agrees.
Dan King is a senior contributor at Young Voices, where he covers civil liberties and criminal justice reform. His work has appeared at Reason, The American Conservative, The Week, and The Weekly Standard.