Civil rights advocates in California and around the country are likely to be disappointed by a recent Supreme Court Ruling. In an 8-1 decision, the justices ruled that a police officer in Kansas acted within boundaries laid down by the U.S. Constitution when he pulled over a car because a records check revealed that its registered owner had a suspended driver’s license. The individual behind the wheel turned out not to be the owner of the vehicle. The ruling was handed down on April 6.
The case reached the nation’s highest court because it raised issues dealing with rights against unreasonable searches and seizures guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Attorneys representing the driver involved argued that police officers should verify the identity of motorists before initiating traffic stops. This argument failed to convince the justices. Justice Clarence Thomas summed up the feelings of the majority when he wrote that the police officer acted reasonably based on the information he had at the time.
The majority opinion pointed out that individuals with revoked or suspended licenses often choose to drive anyway and police officers have no reliable way to determine who is behind the wheel of a vehicle. The only dissenting opinion came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Legal observers say that the ruling does not break any new ground and is consistent with previous Supreme Court decisions.
The courts take constitutional protections very seriously, but they tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt when traffic stops appear to have been made for a legitimate reason. Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely advise motorists to pull over when signaled to do so and treat the police officer or officers involved with respect and courtesy. However, they may also urge them to answer no questions and consent to no warrantless searches.