John Kramer
John Kramer · September 9, 2019

A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could have wide-ranging ramifications for the millions of Americans whose drivers’ licenses have been suspended because of unpaid fines or fees. That is the warning a group of five national organizations gave to the Supreme Court in a brief urging it to prohibit police officers from stopping a vehicle based on nothing more than the officer’s knowledge that the registered owner of the vehicle has a suspended driver’s license. The amicus brief, which was signed by the Cato Institute, Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Institute for Justice, R Street Institute, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, specifically asked the Court to uphold a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found that such stops violated drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

“Millions of Americans have had their drivers’ licenses suspended for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety,” said Lisa Foster, codirector of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Forty-two states have suspended millions of drivers’ licenses because people cannot afford to pay exorbitant traffic, toll, parking or criminal fines or fees. But just because your license is suspended doesn’t mean someone else can’t use your car to drive you to work, drive your children to school or drive an elderly parent to a medical appointment. If your spouse, a friend or a relative drives your car, they risk getting stopped.”

Kansas, like many states, allows police officers to look up license plates to determine if the registered owner’s license is suspended. If they do, Kansas contends that the officer can pull the car over without making any attempt to determine if the driver is in fact the registered owner of the vehicle and without any observation of suspicious or illegal activity. 

The brief—which was written by pro bono counsel, Seanna Brown and Daniel Lemon of the law firm of BakerHostetler—provides context to the Court about the millions of people in the United States today whose driver’s licenses are suspended for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety. Particularly impacted are low-income Americans and Americans of color who have fewer vehicles per household and are more likely to borrow vehicles from friends and family. The brief focuses on the state’s argument that its policies are justified in part because people with suspended licenses are dangerous drivers, and that if the registered owner of the vehicle is not driving at the time the vehicle is stopped, the resulting imposition on a lawful driver is insignificant.

The brief argues: 

“Kansas’s proposed rule threatens significant harm to individual liberty, particularly for people of color. License suspensions disproportionately affect black Americans. Moreover, black Americans are much more likely to be stopped by law enforcement.  Once stopped, blacks are more than twice as likely to be searched following a routine traffic stop than white Americans despite the fact those searches result in proportionately less contraband being found . . . For a young black man borrowing a vehicle from a family member with a suspended license, Kansas’s proposed rule presents a real threat to liberty and safety.”

Samuel Brooke, deputy legal director for the Economic Justice Project at SPLC, said the public is ill served by allowing law enforcement to conduct searches like the one Glover was subjected to. “The actions of states like Kansas make it harder for people to climb out of poverty since it’s hard to keep and hold a job without a valid driver’s license in many parts of the county. That’s especially true for people of color,” Brooke said.

The brief also emphasizes that modern technology, such as Automated License Plate Readers which can capture 2,000 license plates per minute and automatically convey that information to an officer on the street, dramatically increase the likelihood of these unconstitutional stops. 

Arthur Rizer, Director of Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute explained that for his organization, “Allowing for suspicionless seizures of vehicles because the registered owner has a suspended license will only further weaken that founding principle of our Republic: a limited government is a better government.”

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney William Maurer stated, “The view urged by Kansas will result in stops and searches of thousands of individuals who pose no threat to public safety—their only ‘crime’ is owing the government money. The Fourth Amendment ensures that Americans do not lose their right to privacy just because they owe a debt to the government.”