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Supreme Court: “Common Sense” Now Justifies a Traffic Stop

What Evidence Do Police Need to Pull You Over? Less than You May Think.

In Maryland, the law has long held that police officers may not arbitrarily pull over vehicles. They need a concrete reason; suspicion alone is not enough. Historically, this holds true even when an officer runs the plates on a vehicle and receives a computer alert saying the vehicle may be under the control of a suspended or revoked driver. This information does not by itself justify a traffic stop; the officer needs more evidence before pulling that vehicle over.

Should the officer be able to confirm the actual driver of the vehicle is currently unlicensed—typically done by matching the Motor Vehicle Department’s license photo with the appearance of the person driving the vehicle—this would be enough evidence to justify a traffic stop. However, Maryland law has always required the officer to make this effort, thereby establishing reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Now this standard has changed, in our opinion, for the worse.

Reasonable Articulable Suspicion and Probable Cause

This standard, reasonable articulable suspicion, is grounded in the 1968 Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio. You may be familiar with the term probable cause, which is required for police to even begin an investigation. Law enforcement cannot make a move to prosecute someone without having probable cause to believe there is illegal activity. Our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure led to the creation of this standard that has since protected many Americans from unlawful investigations.

In 1968, the Supreme Court of the United States added an exception for reasonable articulable suspicion—that is, if an officer did not have probable cause but did have reason to suspect someone had been recently involved in criminal activity, they could briefly detain that person. Unlike probable cause, the term reasonable articulable suspicion has no set definition. It amounts to what the officer knew at the time he decided to take enforcement action and how well the distinct facts of the situation illustrate this knowledge. Typically, officers are required to document all of this in their narrative police report..

A Slow Dilution of Civil Rights

On April 6, 2020, the US Supreme Court, which imposes binding authority on Maryland law—meaning its decisions override any previous precedent set by our state’s top court, the Maryland Court of Appeals—issued a key decision in Kansas v. Glover, which substantially reduces the burden on officers initiating a traffic stop based on a license-plate scan alert.

Simply put, the Supreme Court gave officers a gift: Upon seeing a vehicle linked to a suspended or revoked driver, they no longer have to investigate the identity of the person behind the wheel before pulling them over. They are allowed to presume the driver is a criminal and initiate a traffic stop. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it is “common sense” for an officer, after a license plate scan links a car to an illegal driver, to conclude whoever is driving at that time is the suspended or revoked licensee, without any further investigative efforts!

It is not hard to see how this recent decision represents a blow to the criminal procedural rights of all motorists. From a legal standpoint, the judicial diminishment of due process on the roadway is very concerning. Our firm consistently stays on top of all relevant legal decisions and believes that every such development should be analyzed critically, and with the rights of our citizens held paramount.

Supporting Your Rights, No Matter What

At Alpert Schreyer Poe, LLC, our criminal defense team, comprised exclusively of former Maryland prosecutors, views every case through the lens of due process and law enforcement overstep. We remain open and ready to vigilantly advocate for anyone who suspects their constitutional rights have been violated.

Call our knowledgeable defense team at (301) 321-7277 or send us a message online. In a free consultation, we can help clarify your rights and options after a citation.

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