Monday, December 3, 2012

Stop! (In the Name of Ownership)



State v. Edmonds/State v. Cobb, 2012 VT 81.

Today’s case seems like the response to a cocktail party question: Can a police officer pull a car over if the computer says the owner’s licensed is suspended?

The answer, not too surprisingly, is yes.


The defendants in the consolidated cases were going about their business in an innocuous manner, but both were driving despite having suspended licenses.  In each case, the defendants were pulled over because a trooper ran a random plate check on their cars and learned that the owners had a suspended license.  In each case, the trooper pulled the driver over, confirmed that the owner was the operator, and cited him for driving with a suspended license. 

The sole question on appeal is whether the Troopers’ actions—running a plate check, learning that the owner had a suspended license, and noticing that the driver was the same gender as the owner—was constitutionally sufficient to create the reasonable suspicion necessary for a warrantless stop.

Under both the Vermont Constitution (Article 11) and the United States Constitution (4th Amendment), individuals are protected from unreasonable searches or seizures.  This usually means that police if they want to search an individual, their car, or their homes have to have a warrant.  But courts have long held that police may stop individuals with what is known in the game as “reasonable suspicion.” 

In this respect, Reasonable suspicion is defined as the union of a few specific facts coupled with rational inferences from those facts that lead to a “reasonable belief that a suspect is engaging in criminal activity.”

What that means for today’s case is that the Troopers took the specific facts—1) owner has a suspended license and 2) a person of the same gender as owner was driving the car—and coupled it with an inference—that the owner was operating the car.  This equaled a reasonable belief that the owner was engaging in the criminal activity of driving with a suspended license, which merited a stop to confirm or disprove this belief. 

The SCOV finds no error in this reasoning and rejects Defendants arguments to the contrary.  The case does not appear to be close.  While this is a question the SCOV has not previously ruled upon, the vast majority of jurisdictions that have considered it have ruled that such facts and inference amount to a reasonable suspicion.  In fact, the Defendants can only find one case from an intermediate appellate court in Virginia that ruled the other way. 

The big problem for Defendants is that they apparently made no particular argument challenging the inference at the heart of the state’s case.  If it was irrational for the trooper to infer that the male driver was likely the male owner of the car, then the stops would have been unconstitutional because they would have been unreasonable.  To prove this, though, the Defendants would have had to show that owners don’t drive their own cars or that a sufficient number of owners lend out their cars enough of the time that the link between driver and operator was relatively meaningless.

It is a tall task, and one that the Defendants probably did not have the resources to mount.  So they were left with arguing the broader position that the Troopers needed more facts (perhaps, age, race, height, hair) before the inference was reasonable. 

The problem with this is that the inference does not need more facts.  If Bob Smith owns a car, and you see someone who could be a “Bob Smith” operating the car, it is rational to conclude that the operator is Bob Smith.  It is rational because of the syllogism: cars are usually operated by their owners; this car is being operated by a person; therefore that person is the owner.  It is logical, and therefore rational. 

The irony, of course, is that the fewer facts there are the easier the inference is.  Then again, the whole issue here is reasonable suspicion to pull the car over to confirm.  The threshold, arguably, should be low.  It allows a Trooper to easily confirm whether a driver is driving with a suspended license, which is against the law.   It is in the public interest to confirm such facts, and a reasonable suspicion is a basic threshold for a limited stop (nothing more).

The counter-argument is that such stops are often the pretext used by police to start a larger search that is usually premised on evidence collected during the stop (emanating odors of alcohol, anyone?), and the easier the first step is the easier it will be for police to exploit a relatively minor stop into an invasive and ultimately unreasonable search. 

In this case, though, the events do not illustrate such concerns as the stops ended in a citation for the reasonable suspicion that instigated the stop.  In other words, the system worked, and there is no reason to overturn it on hypothetical concerns.

So Defendants’ convictions are upheld.  And drivers with suspended licenses are hereby notified that they should probably take the bus—or at least their friend’s car.  

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