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In Lone Dissent, Justice Sotomayor Blasts Majority Opinion: ‘No Foundation in Fact or Logic’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored the lone and blistering dissent in an opinion which increased the power of police officers to conduct vehicle stops while diminishing the protections of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The majority’s justifications for [the opinion’s] new approach have no foundation in fact or logic,” the left-leaning justice notes.

Stylized as Kansas v. Glover, the 8-1 opinion concerns a man, Charles Glover Jr., whose license plate was run by a Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy for no discernible law enforcement purpose. Running the plate determined that the owner of the vehicle had his driver’s license revoked, so the deputy then pulled Glover over on the assumption that he was the driver.

A stipulation agreed to by the police and Glover notes:

Deputy Mehrer did not observe any traffic infractions, and did not attempt to identify the driver [of] the truck. Based solely on the information that the registered owner of the truck was revoked, Deputy Mehrer initiated a traffic stop.

Glover was ultimately charged with “driving as a habitual violator.”

Two courts–the original district court and the Kansas Supreme Court–ruled in favor of suppressing the evidence under a Fourth Amendment analysis which determined the sheriff’s deputy lacked the legal standard known as “reasonable suspicion.”

Under longstanding Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the “reasonable suspicion” standard of proof must be based on “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant” the state’s intrusion on a person and/or their private property.

The “reasonable suspicion” standard is sourced from the landmark Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio and explicitly forecloses against the police’s use of a “hunch” to support such an intrusion. In this instance, however, Sotomayor, like the Kansas Supreme Court, argues that a hunch was exactly what led to the stop here.

“This analysis breaks from settled doctrine and dramatically alters [the] nature of evidence a State may rely on to prove suspicion,” Sotomayor notes.

Additionally, the dissent points out, the majority of justices simply supplied their own reasoning for why the deputy’s hunch was actually just “common sense.”

Sotomayor went on to rip the liberal and conservative majority for substituting “their own brand of common sense” in an instance where the police’s “proffered justifications for a search come up short,” which, she noted, “shifts police work to the judiciary.”

And Fourth Amendment precedent doesn’t really work that way:

[T]he majority flips the burden of proof. It permits Kansas police officers to effectuate roadside stops whenever they lack “information negating an inference” that a vehicle’s unlicensed owner is its driver. This has it backwards: The State shoulders the burden to supply the key inference that tethers observation to suspicion. But that is an after-the-fact gloss on [the agreed-to] stipulation. Nowhere in his terse submission did [the sheriff’s deputy] indicate that he had any informed belief about the propensity of unlicensed drivers to operate motor vehicles in the area—let alone that he relied on such a belief in seizing Glover.

“The consequence of the majority’s approach is to absolve officers from any responsibility to investigate the identity of a driver where feasible,” Sotomayor continues, “But that is precisely what officers ought to do—and are more than capable of doing.”

Some legal experts agreed with the lone justice’s take on the ruling.

“Another blow to the Fourth Amendment,” noted New Jersey public defender Morgan Birck. “Sotomayor dissenting points out how the majority has flipped the burden of proof such that it is assumed the police has reasonable suspicion, and then essentially the defense has to disprove that.”

University of the District of Columbia Law Professor Andrew G. Ferguson called out the opinion and a similar case via Twitter: “They are just ends justifying opinions. They distort the already weak Fourth Amendment and do so without solid logic or case support.”

Birck also offered the following sobering upshot for criminal justice reform advocates: “Other notes: Ginsburg and Kagan are not really our friends. Kagan especially is not particularly friendly to criminal defendants. Also, Sotomayor with the huge flex of quoting herself from another dissent.”

“In upholding routine stops of vehicles whose owners have revoked licenses, the Court ignores key foundations of our reasonable-suspicion jurisprudence and impermissibly and unnecessarily reduces the State’s burden of proof,” Sotomayor writes in lone defiance of both her liberal and conservative colleagues. “I therefore dissent.”

[image via Allison Shelley/Getty Images]

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