Search of Vehicle Violates Fourth Amendment When Based Solely on License Plate from State with Legal Marijuana

Before stopping a vehicle, police must have reasonable suspicion that the stop will reveal evidence of a criminal or traffic offense. In order to search a vehicle or its occupants, they must have probable cause, which is subject to a higher level of scrutiny than reasonable suspicion. The Fourth Amendment guarantees these rights. A recent court case addressed whether police in a state where marijuana remains illegal may search a vehicle solely because of license plates from a state where it is legal. While the district court found that no actionable violation occurred, an appellate court found that this was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Vasquez v. Lewis (“Vasquez I”), No. 5:12-cv-04021, mem. order (D. Kan., Nov. 26, 2014); No. 14-3278 (“Vasquez II”) (10th Cir., Aug, 23, 2016).

Defendants may move to suppress evidence obtained in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights in criminal cases. Many important decisions restricting law enforcement’s ability to conduct warrantless searches have originated from such motions. Another way to establish that a particular act or practice violates constitutional rights is through a civil lawsuit for violations of civil rights by a government agent under 42 U.S. § 1983.

It is important to note that the Vasquez rulings arise from a civil complaint, not a criminal prosecution. The burden of proof here was on the individual driver to prove that a violation occurred, rather than on the state to prove that a crime was committed. While the appellate court found that the officers violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, it remains to be seen whether future courts will consider this binding or persuasive precedent for criminal defendants making a similar argument.

This case also involved a claim not usually available to the state in criminal cases. Qualified immunity shields government officials and agents from liability in their individual capacity for violations of constitutional rights, unless a plaintiff can establish that their conduct “violate[d] clearly established constitutional rights.” Vasquez I at 4, citing Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 562 (1978).

Police in Wabaunsee County, Kansas pulled the plaintiff’s vehicle over on Interstate 70, reportedly because they could not read the temporary tag “taped to the inside of the car’s tinted rear window.” Vasquez II at 2. One of the officers observed that the plaintiff appeared nervous. After checking his license and insurance, the officers brought in a drug-sniffing dog and searched the vehicle without the plaintiff’s consent. The search turned up no evidence of drugs or other contraband, and the officers released the plaintiff.

The plaintiff filed a § 1983 lawsuit against the officers several months later, specifically challenging the search of his vehicle and the use of the drug-sniffing dog under the Fourth Amendment. The officers cited multiple factors justifying the search, all of which seemed to derive from the plaintiff’s “status as a resident of Colorado.” Id. at 7. The appellate court found them all unconvincing, noting that “otherwise innocent factors [do not] become[] suspicious” merely because a driver is from a state with legalized marijuana. Id. at 9.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Since 1992, board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of defendants in west Texas state and federal criminal courts. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Police May Not Extend Duration of Traffic Stop to Wait for Drug-Sniffing Dog, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 9, 2015

Federal “Automobile Exception,” According to Some Courts, Allows Warrantless Searches of Cars Without Exigent Circumstances, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 29, 2014

Lawmakers Propose Restrictions on Drone Surveillance, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, March 29, 2013


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