Every day officers pull people over based on the traffic violations they believe they saw. But what is enough for the officer to stop? What is enough for an officer to search? If an officer believes your license is suspended, is that enough for them to search a car?

US Supreme Court Weighs In

In Kansas v. Glover, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that a police officer may conduct an “investigative” traffic stop and subsequently arrest a driver based on a “reasonable suspicion” of a motor vehicle infraction without  violating the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

Because Supreme  Court decisions interpreting the U.S. Constitution are binding on all states, Glover may have an impact on you as a driver in Texas. In this article, we’ll discuss the case and its practical impact.

Know your Rights: The Fourth Amendment Protects You Against Unlawful Searches and Seizures

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution  guarantees citizens protection against searches and seizures of both things (such as your car or your home) and persons (that is, search of your person and arrest) without a warrant issued based on “probable cause”.  “Probable cause” has been defined as “sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime”. “Sufficient” naturally requires that the belief is reasonable, but what is “sufficient” will therefore vary with the facts of each case. Article 1 of the Texas State Constitution provides similar protection, though it also uses slightly different language.

Generally, an arrest made on less than probable cause is invalid, and evidence seized without a warrant may not be used against an individual charged on the basis of that evidence. In other words, an officer better have the facts to back up his belief that a crime has occurred or the arrest and the evidence found will be thrown out.

But, the general requirement that an officer have a warrant before conducting a search is subject to four distinct exceptions:

  • Search and seizure incident to a lawful arrest
  • Motor vehicle searches
  • Inventory search
  • Plain view doctrine

No Warrant Needed: The Motor Vehicle Exception

The Glover case represents the latest in a series of U.S. Supreme Court and Texas decisions considering the scope of the automobile exception, which was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 in Carroll v. United States. Carroll held that a law enforcement officer may search a vehicle without a warrant provided he or she has probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime or contraband is located in the car. The exception is based on two distinct ideas:

  • That individuals have a reduced expectation of privacy in cars due to the regulations under which they operate; and
  • That the mobility of a vehicle creates so-called “exigent circumstances.”

This means that if an officer is able to articulate the probable cause for believing that there is evidence in your car, an officer can search your car without a warrant.  However, you should never consent to a search of your car or home without a warrant. If they get your consent to search, then they do not need probable cause!

No Warrant AND No Probable Cause?: The “Investigatory Stop”

“Officers can also search you without a warrant and without probable cause if the officer conducts an “Investigative” traffic stop. Supreme Court cases have recognized the validity of brief so-called “investigative” traffic stops and resulting searches or arrests that are not only warrantless, but are based on something less than probable cause. However, the officer must still have some “reasonable and objective basis” on which to believe a crime has been committed.  Texas courts have also recognized the investigatory stop exception.  While the test of whether an investigatory stop was justified is less stringent than probable cause, the stop must generally be brief enough so that it is not considered an arrest, which would require probable cause.

The Supreme Court’s Latest: The Glover Case

The Glover case began when a police officer on patrol decided to run a license check on a truck. While the report came back as belonging to Mr. Glover, it also indicated that Mr. Glover’s driving privileges had been revoked. Mr. Glover was stopped and arrested for driving without a valid license.

Mr. Glover did not dispute the validity of the well-settled automobile exception or the ability of police to make investigatory stops. He did, however, assert that the investigatory stop which led to his arrest was not based on a “reasonable suspicion” that Mr. Glover was the driver of his vehicle. He argued that a friend or family member could just as easily have been driving.

While acknowledging that someone else could indeed have been driving the vehicle, the Supreme Court nevertheless rejected Glover’s argument. The Court determined that the likelihood that Glover was indeed the driver – and thus guilty of driving without a valid license – was reasonable.

The Practical Effect For Texas Drivers

The Court in Glover stressed that its holding is intended to be narrowly interpreted. For example, because a driver’s license in Kansas (as in Texas) can be suspended for reasons unrelated to the operation of a vehicle (for example, delinquent child support obligations) Glover’s arrest would likely not have been deemed valid if the license check revealed his license had been suspended rather than revoked, even though Kansas (as does Texas) considers it a crime to drive for any reason without a current, valid license. Unlike Kansas, Texas may revoke a license for reasons unrelated to the safe and legal operation of a vehicle. As such, the specific rule announced in Glover may not be applicable in Texas.

Nevertheless, the Glover opinion can be read to expand the “reasonable basis” test applicable to arrests or searches incident to an investigative stop. Under the Court’s decision, any attribute of a driver or a vehicle that a reasonable person, whether or not a police officer, could conclude is an indication of a crime can now be the basis of an arrest or search following an investigative stop.