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Supreme Court: It’s reasonable to assume a driver is car’s owner

| Apr 10, 2020 | Illegal Search And Seizure |

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits “unreasonable” searches and seizures by the government, including police officers. A search or seizure can be anything from a momentary stop to a full search and arrest. Over the years, courts have worked hard to determine what should be considered “reasonable.”

This is because, when the government is found to have committed an unreasonable search or seizure, any evidence they find was obtained illegally. Since the government should not be allowed to benefit from illegal activities, that evidence is then suppressed and cannot be used against the defendant.

So, it can be crucial in a criminal case to know whether the evidence was obtained through an unreasonable search or seizure. The outcome of the case can turn on the question.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard a case in which a man was pulled over when a police officer noticed that a vehicle was on the road despite its owner having a revoked license. After determining that the owner’s license was revoked, the officer pulled the car over on the assumption that the driver had a revoked license.

But was that a reasonable thing to assume? After all, people lend their cars to others, perhaps especially when they themselves aren’t allowed to drive. It easily could have been the case that the person driving the vehicle in question had a perfectly valid license.

If the person driving the car had not been the owner, they would have been pulled over despite having done nothing wrong. It was only chance, the defendant argued, that it happened to be the owner driving.

High court says the officer did no wrong

The majority of the Supreme Court determined that it was reasonable to assume the driver of a car is its licensed owner, even when that is not always the case. Making an inference that the licensed owner is, in fact, the driver, is acceptable — although it might not always be.

If the officer had known, for example, that the owner of the vehicle was a 60-year-old man but the driver was a 20ish female, making the inference would not have been reasonable.

This case may add more confusion than clarity to what constitutes a “reasonable” traffic stop, since future cases would rely on the overall reasonableness of the officer’s actions, as well.

If you have been pulled over, discuss the circumstances with your criminal defense attorney. Depending on the circumstances, that traffic stop may not have been reasonable. If it was not, any evidence obtained during the traffic stop might have to be suppressed.