As long as officers legitimately observe a license plate, there’s no Fourth Amendment violation, and they don’t need reasonable cause to run a check. Photo Dale Stockton
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Officers regularly run license plate checks to learn the ownership of an abandoned vehicle, verify whether the vehicle is stolen and randomly check plates while on routine patrol. Often, vehicle registration checks lead to other evidence of criminal activity.
No doubt, checking license plates is an excellent tool to obtain a wealth of information. But are the owners of the plates and vehicle registrations entitled to keep that information private?
In other words, what do officers need by way of reasonable suspicion or probable cause to run the license plate? The answer: Nothing, as long as police officers legitimately observe the license plate.
No Plate Privacy
Many courts have addressed the issue of whether police officers need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to run computerized checks on license plates under a variety of circumstances. The question is not whether officers can stop a vehicle once the computer check reveals a criminal and/or traffic violation. The question is whether officers need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to run the computer check in the first place.
Despite the underlying circumstances, the courts don t hesitate in asserting that a motorist has no expectation of privacy in the license plate number of his vehicle. So, when police officers randomly run the registration of vehicles for no reason other than to check the information, there is no Fourth Amendment violation.
For example, in United States v. Walraven, an Albany County, Wyo., deputy sheriff observed two men driving a 1983 brown Cadillac bearing a Tennessee license plate. The deputy routinely ran the license plates on out-of-state vehicles. After asking his dispatcher to do a computerized check on the Cadillac s vehicle registration, the deputy was informed that the plate number belonged to a 1988 Toyota. The deputy decided to stop the Cadillac on that information alone.
After stopping the vehicle and engaging the occupants in a conversation relating to the purpose of the traffic stop, the deputy located a bag containing 2 kilos of cocaine. The deputy arrested both occupants.
The owner of the vehicle (who was the passenger at the time of the traffic stop) appealed the district court s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine, alleging the deputy obtained the contraband in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the owner challenged the constitutionality of the deputy s registration check of his vehicle.
The appellate court s analysis of the deputy s method in establishing reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle was succinct. In short, it held that because license plates are in plain view, no privacy interest exists in the license plates. Another federal appellate court stated, Like the area outside the curtilage of a dwelling, a car s license plate number is constantly open to the plain view of passersby [and] unless a registration check reveals information which raises a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the subject remains unaware of the check and unencumbered.
Incorrect Plate Information
What if an officer runs a computer check of a license plate and mistypes or misstates one of the license plate characters? What if a dispatcher mistypes or misstates the information? What if, as a result of the officer s or dispatcher s mistake, the vehicle is stopped, the driver is briefly detained and contraband is seized?
Of course, any officer finding contraband in plain view can arrest the driver of the vehicle. However, isn t the contraband tainted because the officer and/or the dispatcher incorrectly communicated the vehicle registration? Not necessarily so.
In general, if the officer and/or dispatcher acted in good faith in running the registration, the subsequent traffic stop and/or search resulting in the seizure of contraband will not be suppressed. In United States v. Leon, the Supreme Court rationalized the use of the exclusionary rule would not deter improper police conduct where an officer engaged in objectively reasonable law enforcement activity: In short, where the officer s conduct is objectively reasonable, excluding the evidence will not further the ends of the exclusionary rule in any appreciable way.
Naturally, it s the prosecutor s burden to demonstrate the officer s conduct was objectively reasonable. If the prosecution fails to meet the burden, only then will the evidence be suppressed.
Erroneous registration checks on the part of officers and dispatchers are not unheard of. Mistakes will occur. However, those mistakes may not necessarily result in the suppression of evidence resulting from a traffic stop based on the erroneous input of registration information.
For example, in United States v. Sparks, an officer called in the license plate of a GMC Suburban to request a computerized check. The dispatcher mistyped the information given by the officer and informed him that the plate was registered to a 1983 Chevy CTX. The dispatcher subsequently informed the officer of the error and that the correct registration information revealed it had expired one month earlier.
After receiving the information, the officer initiated a traffic stop. Upon questioning the driver, the officer located a stolen motorcycle plate, amphetamine, a loaded .45-caliber gun and a black ski mask. This information also led to the officer obtaining a search warrant for the vehicle, which revealed additional weapons and drugs.The driver filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing the traffic stop was based on the computerized check on the wrong license plate. However, the court found that the driver failed to point to any evidence that the officer lacked good faith. Moreover, even assuming the officer did not possess good faith, the court found that the dispatcher, once she revealed her error, told the officer the Suburban s correct license plate was expired by one month. This is probable cause to stop the vehicle.
Even without the additional probable cause as in Sparks, if an officer acts in good faith, the evidence may not be suppressed. In Walraven, the dispatcher gave the officer conducting the traffic stop information on a different license plate (she inverted the last two numbers of the license plate) and gave him this information on three separate occasions in a 3.5 minute period. The court found that the officer unquestionably acted in good faith upon the report when he pulled defendant s vehicle over to investigate the perceived registration discrepancy . . . [T]here existed in his mind a belief which would alert a reasonable person that some sort of crime had been or was in the process of being committed.
The Walraven court further found that because the officer was concentrating on the Cadillac, he did not hear the dispatcher incorrectly repeat the license plate information. Moreover, evidence that the officer was concentrating on the road was also presented.
Randomly checking license plates also applies to vehicles that are stationary. For example, police officers in U.S. v. Ealy wrote down the defendant s vehicle license plate number after entering an open door of an unattached garage located near the defendant s residence in which his brother conducted an informal vehicle repair business. The court found the officers did not violate the defendant s Fourth Amendment rights. In so ruling, the court noted that the police officers entered the garage in the precise manner that potential customers seeking vehicle repair services routinely entered the garage looking for the defendant s brother.
The Bottom Line
Randomly checking the license plate numbers of vehicles through dispatchers or in-car computers, whether the vehicles are moving or are stationary, does not violate the Fourth Amendment as long as law enforcement officers are conducting legitimate law enforcement business or are in a location where they have a lawful right to be.
Do not construe this column as legal advice. Each police officer should consult with an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice on any specific issue.
1. Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 236 (1968).
2. United States v. Walraven, 892 F.2d 972, 973 (10th Cir. 1989).
3. Id. at 974 (citing United States v. Matthews, 615 F.2d 1279, 1285 (10th Cir. 1980)).
4. Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston, 185 F.3d 521, 529 (5th Cir. 1999) (citing Walraven, 892 F.2d at 974)).
5. 468 U.S. 897, 919 20 (1984).
6. 37 Fed.Appx. 826, 827 (8th Cir. 2002).
7. 892 at 974 75.
8. 363 F.3d 292, 295 (4th Cir. 2004).