Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Lasting Impact on U.S. Traffic Laws

Justice Ginsburg was involved in several seminal traffic stop cases.

In honor of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States, we are covering a topic that’s slightly different from the norm today.

Ginsburg is nothing short of a monumental figure in the history of the American legal system. She served for 27 years on the nation’s highest court, the culmination of a long and storied career as a jurist and judge.

What car enthusiasts might not know is that Ginsburg tackled automotive-related legal issues throughout her time on the bench. Ginsburg, along with her Supreme Court colleague Antonin Scalia, authored numerous opinions addressing the rights of Americans as drivers and passengers of wheeled vehicles.

Kansas v. Glover – Traffic stops for revoked driver’s licenses

Consider, for example, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Kansas v. Glover. That case involved a legal question of whether a police officer, who runs a vehicle’s license plate, can assume that the car is being driven by the registered owner and conduct a traffic stop. In the specific case, the registered owner of the car had a revoked driver’s license, which the officer used as a basis for pulling over the car.

The Supreme Court ruled that the vehicle owner’s revoked license was basis enough for a traffic stop to occur, even if the officer may not know who is actually driving the car. Ginsburg, at oral argument, questioned attorneys for the state about whether they believed that a driver with a revoked license would subsequently break the law. Ginsburg subsequently sided with the majority, which ruled that such a traffic stop was constitutional and thus permissible.

Rodriguez v. United States – Length of traffic stops

Ginsburg’s focus on personal liberties was more fully realized in the case of Rodriguez v. United States, which concerned the question of how long traffic stops may last.

Rodriguez concerned the question of whether a traffic stop, occurring on the basis of a traffic violation, could be extended to cover additional law enforcement measures, such as the use of a drug-sniffing dog.

Ginsburg wrote the eloquent majority opinion, stating that a traffic stop will become unlawful if “it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.” Ginsburg reasoned that because the initial purpose of the stop was to investigate why the driver in question had swerved out of his lane, the scope of the traffic stop was limited to investigation of that question.

Notably, Scalia joined in the majority opinion, despite the well-publicized differences in opinion between himself and Ginsburg.

Brendlin v. California – Fourth Amendment “seizure” at traffic stop

Ginsburg joined the majority in Brendlin v. California, which held that both passengers and drivers are “seized” under the Fourth Amendment during a traffic stop.

This ruling matters because evidence discovered by police as a result of an unreasonable traffic stop is not admissible in court, due to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Related Story: Ohio State Highway Patrol Stops Wrong Way Driver

Justice Ginsburg is a legendary judge, and her legacy lives on in how traffic laws are enforced in America. While Ginsburg’s personal feelings on cars are unknown, her impact will forever be felt when drivers are detained for traffic violations.