NOEL KING, HOST:
The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case that asks whether a police officer can make a traffic stop on the assumption that the driver of a car owns the car. Now, that might sound like nitpicking, but in this case, the owner of the car had had his license suspended so the question of whether it was him driving is really important. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg picks it up from there.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Sometimes a day at the Supreme Court breaks the mold, and this was one of those days. The case from Lawrence, Kan., was worthy of Dorothy and her ruby slippers. All the players in the case were there - the defendant, his original lawyer, the trial judge, the assistant DA and the police officer who made the traffic stop. And they all seemed to be friends. In fact, Charlie Glover, the defendant, was standing in line on the Supreme Court plaza, not at all sure he was going to get in to see his case argued, when Andrew Bauch, the assistant DA who prosecuted him, plucked him out of line.
ANDREW BAUCH: We didn't think he had a ticket. And so when we got in, I spoke to the marshals, and I said, hey, the defendant on this case is outside. We'd like to get him in. And they said, OK, go get him. And so I ran back and grabbed Mr. Glover and brought him in.
CHARLIE GLOVER: It was neat. It was really kind of empowering.
TOTENBERG: Defendant Charlie Glover says it was also a little scary, too. He admits he's had butterflies for about a month.
GLOVER: I don't think that a lot of Americans realize that, I mean, it's a big deal.
TOTENBERG: In this case, there was no witness testimony; rather, the prosecutor and defense lawyer agreed to stipulate to minimal facts in order to get a ruling so that police would know in the future whether they could just assume that the driver of a car is the owner or whether they had to show something more than that the owner had a suspended license. Sheriff's Deputy Mark Mehrer admits that once he ran the plates...
MARK MEHRER: My training officers, my peers - it's just generally accepted that that was a lawful stop.
TOTENBERG: The Kansas Supreme Court, however, disagreed - declaring that when a driver has committed no infractions, police need something more than an assumption in order to have a reasonable suspicion that the driver is the owner and is driving without a license. Kansas then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case yesterday.
At first, some of the justices seemed sympathetic to Glover's argument. Justice Gorsuch told lawyers for the state that perhaps too much hinges on the commonsense assumption that drivers are usually owners of vehicles. After all, he noted, the younger generation often rents cars rather than owning them. Moreover, he observed, the officer who stopped Glover never testified.
But when Glover's lawyer came to the lectern, Gorsuch pressed her about what would be accomplished by having such testimony. If all that's at issue here is that Kansas forgot to put the officer on the stand to say that, in my experience, the driver is usually the owner, what are we fighting about here? We're just asking for a magical incantation of words. Lawyer Sarah Harrington replied that, if an officer had testified, he could have been cross-examined.
Chief Justice Roberts, sarcastically - do you think it's totally random who the driver is? The car is registered to Fred Jones, but there's a 5% chance it's him? By the end of the argument, at least six justices seemed to be siding with the state and a presumption that the driver of the car is the owner. Fortunately for Charlie Glover, even if he loses his case, he now has a license to drive again.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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