Appeals Court Tells Cops Their Inability To Read A Temporary Plate Cannot Justify A Traffic Stop

from the not-just-any-pretext-will-do dept

Pretextual stops are an unfortunate side effect of American law enforcement. When cops want to question people or root around in their cars, they’ll find another reason to make the stop and hope the eventual searches make it all worthwhile.

This law enforcement activity has been repeatedly blessed by courts, which tend to view it as an essential component of crime-fighting. The collateral damage to constitutional rights is often viewed as an acceptable sacrifice for law enforcement gains. But, every so often, cops mishandle the pretext so badly courts can’t grant them immunity for their rights violations. It’s rare, but it’s always good to see it happen.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has handed down one of these rarities [PDF]. Cops, who admitted in their own testimony they couldn’t clearly see the plate they decided to view as potentially illegal, will have to continue to face this lawsuit, having had their immunity stripped by two consecutive courts.

Pretext stops are cool and legal. But the pretense has to hold up long enough to justify the initial stop. This one didn’t. From the opening of the decision:

[T]he officers noted that [Jared] Clinton’s car did not have permanent license plates. Instead, the plates on Clinton’s car advertised the dealership “Dewey Auto Outlet.” Clinton had a valid temporary tag in the appropriate place in his vehicle’s rear window. However, the officers were unable to “make out any writing” on it from their position behind Clinton’s vehicle. The officers “observed that the vehicle had . . . dealer plates and a white piece of paper taped in the back window. [They] followed the vehicle for several blocks and could not make out any writing on it.” According to Officer Minnehan, “mostly it [was] the angle of the back windshield and then the glare from the sun” that made the tag unreadable. Officer Garrett similarly testified that he “could not have said” whether the tag “was blank or not blank” because “there was no way to tell” from where they were following Clinton’s vehicle. He further testified to having previously encountered forged tags because of the fact that paper tags are “easily altered.” Officer Steinkamp testified about his previous experiences with drivers placing counterfeit or blank documents in the windows of unregistered vehicles to mimic temporary registration tags.

The only conclusion these officers had reached was that they wanted to stop this car. They didn’t have anything else. So, they pulled the car over and one officer upped the ante by claiming to detect the “strong odor of marijuana.” A search soon commenced with officers discovering a vape pen and vape cartridge both “alleged to contain THC.” Jared Clinton was charged with possession and spent four hours in jail. He filed a motion to suppress, which apparently was enough to convince the county prosecutor to dismiss the case.

Clinton sued. The officers claimed they not only had reasonable suspicion to perform the stop, but qualified immunity if they were wrong about the reasonable suspicion part. The lower court disagreed with the officers.

It is undisputed that Clinton’s temporary tag complied with Iowa law. Clinton v. Garrett, 551 F. Supp. 3d 929, 938 (S.D. Iowa 2021) (“A properly completed temporary registration tag was taped in Clinton’s rear window.”). The issue is whether the officers had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Clinton was violating the law. The district court found that they did not, reasoning that the inability to make out the tag did not constitute “a particularized basis for believing a motor vehicle was unregistered or a temporary registration tag was falsified.” The court based its conclusion on the distinction between an absence of information about the tag, i.e., the officers’ inability to see what was on the tag, and the presence of some information that pointed to the tag being fake.

The Appeals Court says the lower court was right. A cop can’t use their failure to do their job competently as the basis for a traffic stop.

We focused on the fact that Officer Del Valle relied on her inability to read the tag—rather than on her observation of a possible legal defect on the tag—in deciding to stop the vehicle

The decision concludes with the court pointing out the ridiculousness of the officers’ arguments simply by repeating them back to them.

The officers argue that there is no clearly established right to drive with a nervous passenger through a high crime neighborhood with a temporary tag that is unable to be read by officers following the vehicle. We have already dismissed this argument to the extent that it relies upon Clinton’s nervous passenger and the area where he was driving. These facts, in isolation, do not support a conclusion that Clinton’s vehicle was connected to unlawful activity in general, much less to the specific kind of unlawful activity for which the officers pulled him over—a possible temporary tag violation. Nor can a driver rightly be held responsible for ambient conditions that render a tag illegible. […] The authority is clear: officers must have particularized facts that give rise to reasonable suspicion in order for a stop to be constitutionally valid.

Immunity denied. And the officers who converted their inability to read a paper plate into an unconstitutional stop and search can continue to be sued by their victim. Not all pretexts are created equal and this pretext turned out to be almost as useless as no pretext at all.

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Comments on “Appeals Court Tells Cops Their Inability To Read A Temporary Plate Cannot Justify A Traffic Stop”

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Abby says:

warrantless Seizure

vehicle license plates are legally merely an unnecessary administrative mechanism to publicly broadcast that the vehicle owner has registered that vehicle & paid the required government fees.

there is no just or constitutional basis permitting armed police to routinely stop and perform a 4th Amendment “Seizure” of a vehicle/passengers … merely for some real or suspected administrative violation of registration rules.

VIN numbers fully identify any vehicle, and are easily and safely seen when a vehicle is parked.

Anonymous Coward says:


Which should result in less unnecessary stops by the police, being told that they are looking for a blue car, or they are looking for a blue car with a partial registration. A registration allows identification of a moving vehicle, and also gives a readable and recordable means of identification for vehicles in involved in a minor accident, whreas finding and looking at the VIN requires access to the inside of the vehicle..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3

The alternatives to visible license tags are:

1) The cops stop every vehicle vaguely matching the description of the suspects vehicle, reported fleeing an accident, or reported stolen vehicle, including yours whenever it matches a vague description. This give the grounds for the cops to stop any vehicle whenever they want.

2) Anybody who can drive away from an accident, crime scene or in a stolen vehicle is effectively immune from being stopped and arrested.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I cover that up when I go to Mexico becuase I have heard of drug dealers looking for someone less likely to to through secondary when returning to the USA.

They will use the VIN number to make a key for your car, then then can stash the stuff in your car, put a GPS tracker on your car and track it and then retrieve their smack if it gets through US Customs.

I have heard of that happening, so I cover up my windshield VIN whenever I go to Mexico, so that bad guys cannot get the VIN number to make any keys for my car.

Hiding the VIN on your windsheid for that purpose does not break any laws wnyehere in either the USA or Mexico.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Registration Rules are Laws

The Constitutional basis for a traffic stop related to an improper license plate is the fact that having a proper license plate is a legal requirement for operating a motor vehicle on public roads. Since a vehicle without a proper plate is possibly being operated illegally, that provides the reasonable suspicion required by Fourth Amendment jurisprudence for a traffic stop.

To move a step up the chain, the Constitutional basis for states to be able to require license plates at all is the fact that the Constitution neither makes that the domain of the federal government nor does it prohibit the states from doing so. (Which makes sense, since the Constitution pre-dates motor vehicles being in common use by Americans by over a century.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

so all rules regulations and laws should be promptly enforced by police directly detaining all suspected offenders no matter the trivialty of the offense ?

if you fail to pay your taxes on April 15th, police should forcibly enter your home on April 16th to confront you ?
(you might also be a drug deal or ax e murderer, so it is important to get the police involved ASAP)

The million+ government rules must be aggresively fnforced at all times!

Anonymous Coward says:


The one damned if you do, damned if you don’t is going to Canada, when I like to go to Canada’s Wonderland.

No matter how much money you have in bank accounts or credit cards, you can be denied entry into Canada if you are not carrying enough cash.

This is why states that border Canada, such as Michigan, have asset forfeiture laws, becuase they know that people will have to carry cash on them to enter Canada no matter how much they have in the bank. I have hard of American citizens being denied entry into Canada becuase they are not carry enough cash no matter how much money they have in banks or on credit cards.

There are some cars that have places you can hide cash where they will never find it, by the way the car was manufactured.

Hiding cash, or hiding cards to pevent cops from using ERAD does not violate any laws as long as the apace you hide them in was part of the original vehicle’s manufacture.

I won’t say where you can hide it, but on many 1985-2011 GM vehicles, the space does exist, in the original manufactureer of the vehicles. And using that space to hide cash to avoid cash being seized or an cards to avoid an ERAD scan does not break the law anywhere in Canada, Mexico, or the USA. If the original manufacturer put that in, it does not break the law.

I only keep a low limit credit card in my wallet, to limit the damage. If they run that, the most they can get is $1500, and no more. I limit what they can take.

Anonymous Coward says:

There some instances where obfusacting your plate is justified.

Amusement parks are an example. After well publicized incidents of brawls at Knotts and Magic Kingdom, some are putting ALPRs in their parking lots.

As long as I am not doing anything illegal and otherwise following the rules, they have no damn business reading my plates, so I will soon have an infra red anti-ALPR on my car, so my plate numbers cannot be read

If Cedar Fair, Six Flags, Disney, etc. does not like that they can go blow themselves.

Also when crossing the border into Canada or Mexico, I use that so that the APLRs that ICE/CBP has for vehicles exiting the country cannot read my plates. If CBP or ICE does not like that they can just go blow themselves.

Hiding my plate number from Disney, Cedar Fair, Six Flags, or from ICE/CBP, using the infra read obfuscation method, does not break laws in California, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Goergia, Ontario, or any federal laws in either Canada, Mexico, or the USA.

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