Federal Appeals Court: License Plate Profiling Illegal

Drivers from states where marijuana is legal cannot lawfully be singled out by patrol officers just because they have an out-of-state license, justices with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in a 2-1 decision. police3

In Vasquez v. Lewis, the Denver-based justices ruled it’s unconstitutional to pull over a driver simply because they have out-of-state plates. The civil lawsuit was against two highway patrol officers form Kansas who conceded they stopped a driver at least partially because his license plates were from a state “known to be home to medical marijuana dispenaries.” Officers characterized the entire state of Colorado as a “known drug source area” and the highway on which the driver traveled is a “known corridor.” Mind you, the highway to which the officers were referring is Interstate 70, which is 2,000 miles long and spans all the way from the East Coast to Utah. The driver also had a blanket in his vehicle, which officers asserted, “Might have obscured something.”

The officers also asserted the driver was “acting suspiciously” and was “nervous.” He also reportedly had a temporary tag taped to the inside of his tinted rear window, which officers said they were unable to see. However, the court rejected these other arguments. Justice Carlos Lucero, writing for the majority, wrote that police have to abandon this pretense that citizenship in certain states justifies traffic stops, particularly given that medical marijuana is now legal in 25 states, plus Washington D.C. If such practice was allowed, that would mean police would have reasonable grounds to justify the search and seizure of citizens in more than half the states in the U.S. 

When Colorado voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes back in 2012, police in neighboring states started to complain that marijuana was making its way illegally across the borders, where the drug is banned. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined review of litigation filed against Colorado by Oklahoma and Nebraska, arguing this fact has resulted in law enforcement being overburdened.

In Kansas, where the Vasquez case originated, authorities with the state highway patrol could not say definitively how much the state was affected by this alleged spillover, though the Associated Press reported three years ago that almost 80 of the 130-plus felony marijuana trafficking cases filed in Kansas in the first five months of the year stemmed from marijuana and/or motorists from Colorado.

Drivers from Colorado in particular have complained about “license plate profiling” in Kansas and in other states. Rental vehicles with Colorado plates are deemed especially suspicious. The state highway patrol, however, denied that it targets people solely based on their license plate and a spokesman said the Vasquez ruling isn’t going to alter the way its troopers do their jobs.

In this case, the driver was pulled over when officers were unable to see his temporary tag. He was given a warning for that infraction, and that should have been the end of the encounter. However, officers asked to search the man’s vehicle. When he declined, they held him for 15 minutes until a canine unit could make it (a tactic the U.S. Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in the spring of 2015). The drug dog didn’t find anything and the driver was released.

The driver sued the officers in federal district court, alleging they violated his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The federal district court had tossed the case, but the appellate court decision revives it. This legal precedent is now applicable throughout the 10th Circuit, meaning it applies in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming Oklahoma and Kansas.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:

Vasquez v. Lewis, Aug. 23, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Maine Doctor Reprimanded for Marijuana Permission Slip to Patient Employer, Aug. 28, 2016, Colorado Marijuana Lawyer Blog