Supreme Court Rules on Traffic Stops and Age Bias

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that police officers may stop vehicles registered to people whose driver’s licenses had been suspended on the assumption that the driver was the owner, rather than, say, a family member. The court also ruled that federal workers can win age discrimination suits under a more relaxed standard than employees in the private sector. And it turned down an appeal challenging a transit system’s ban on religious advertising.

In spring 2016, a sheriff’s deputy in Lawrence, Kan., ran a check of the license plate of a moving Chevrolet pickup truck. The deputy learned that the vehicle was registered to Charles Glover Jr. and that Mr. Glover’s driver’s license had been revoked.

Based on that information and nothing more, the deputy stopped the truck, which Mr. Glover turned out to be driving. Mr. Glover was prosecuted for driving without a license, and he moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that the stop had violated the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled for Mr. Glover, saying the deputy had made two unreasonable assumptions: that a vehicle’s registered owner is “likely the primary driver” and that people whose driver’s licenses are suspended or revoked “will likely disregard the suspension or revocation and continue to drive.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed that ruling, saying that the deputy’s assumption had been supported by common sense. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said the deputy had drawn “an entirely reasonable inference that Glover was driving while his license was revoked.”

Justice Thomas wrote that matters would be different had the officer known, for instance, that the registered owner was “in his mid-60s” but observed that the driver was “in her mid-20s.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, gave several other examples of kinds of information available to police officers that would make such traffic stops improper.

Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the case, Kansas v. Glover, No. 18-556. “The majority today has paved the road to finding reasonable suspicion based on nothing more than a demographic profile,” she wrote.

The second decision issued Monday, Babb v. Wilkie, No. 18-882, concerned Noris Babb, a pharmacist who said she was denied promotions, benefits and training opportunities by the Department of Veterans Affairs at least partly because of her age.

Had she worked in the private sector or for a state or local government, she would have had to prove that her age was a determinative reason for the denials — a “but for” cause in the legal jargon. The question for the justices was whether federal workers can win age discrimination suits under a more relaxed standard, showing only that age was one factor among many leading to a negative employment decision.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the words of the relevant law allowed Ms. Babb to sue under the relaxed standard. The law says that “all personnel actions affecting employees or applicants for employment who are at least 40 years of age” shall be “made free from any discrimination based on age.”

“That Congress would want to hold the federal government to a higher standard than state and private employers is not unusual,” Justice Alito wrote. He added, though, that even federal workers must satisfy the stricter standard to obtain many forms of relief, including reinstatement and back pay.

Only Justice Thomas dissented. “The court’s holding,” he wrote, “unnecessarily risks imposing hardship on those tasked with managing thousands of employees within our numerous federal agencies.”

The court also turned down an appeal from the Archdiocese of Washington, whose request to place religious advertising on public buses during the 2017 Christmas season was rejected by the local transit system.

The ad showed the silhouettes of three shepherds looking at a star along with the words “Find the Perfect Gift.” A web address on the ad led to information about Roman Catholic beliefs and activities.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, operated by Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, rejected the ad, citing a 2015 policy barring political, religious and advocacy advertising. The agency said it had adopted the policy after it received complaints about ads showing graphic images of animal cruelty, opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation and criticizing the Catholic Church’s position on using condoms.

The archdiocese sued, saying the policy violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government discrimination against speech based on its viewpoint. A trial judge ruled for the agency, and a two-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, then a judge on the appeals court, was the third member of the panel and heard arguments in the case. Though he did not participate in the appeals court’s decision, he disqualified himself from the Supreme Court’s consideration of the case, Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, No. 18-1455.

“Because the full court is unable to hear this case, it makes a poor candidate for our review,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, said in a statement. But they said the transit system had engaged in viewpoint discrimination forbidden by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment requires governments to protect religious viewpoints, not single them out for silencing,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.

In urging the Supreme Court to hear the case, the archdiocese argued that the agency had plainly discriminated against religious viewpoints. “If Amazon or Macy’s had wanted to run an advertisement with the same text and graphics or with reindeer instead of shepherds, there is no question that W.M.A.T.A. would have readily accepted the advertisement,” Paul D. Clement, a former solicitor general in the Bush administration, wrote in a petition seeking review.

The agency, represented by Donald B. Verrilli Jr., a former solicitor general in the Obama administration, responded that the archdiocese’s argument “depends on treating advertisements for toys or beverages not as what they are — efforts to sell commercial products — but as a form of social commentary on the meaning of Christmas.”

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