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.