Such tactics were always controversial. Now, a federal court says they're totally unjustified.
In the strongest ruling on this topic to date (read it below), the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals says that Colorado license plates alone are not nearly enough to sanction a traffic stop.
The case is based on a lawsuit filed by Peter Vasquez against two Kansas state troopers, Dax Lewis and Richard Jimerson — and the incident itself took place nearly five years ago.
On December 16, 2011, according to a narrative in the ruling, Vasquez, driving a 1992 BMW sedan with a temporary tag, was pulled over while headed eastbound on Interstate 70 in Wabaunsee County, Kansas. Trooper Jimerson said that he couldn't read the BMW's tag because of its tinted window, and after the stop, he was suspicious in part because Vasquez said he was originally from Colorado. His destination: Elkton, Maryland, where he'd just moved.
Jimerson thought that Vasquez, the owner of a store called Boutiques at Brighton, seemed nervous, the document continues, and Lewis concurred. This, along with other highly dubious factors (blankets in the back seat that seemed to be covering something, for example), convinced them to call for a trained drug dog to check out the vehicle. Vasquez was detained while the K9 went over the vehicle — and found nothing illegal.
Vasquez didn't let bygones be bygones. The following February, he filed a lawsuit against the troopers. His argument: They had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him and searching his car without reasonable suspicion.
The case eventually went before a district court, which granted the troopers' motion to toss it out based on qualified immunity, which shields government officials and state employees such as law enforcement officers from civil liability so long as their actions don't violate established statutes or constitutional rights about which a reasonable person would have known.
The 10th Circuit Court, hearing Vasquez's appeal, had a different point of view. Quoting a series of past rulings, the court said the fact that a defendant was traveling from a "drug-source state...does little to add to the overall calculus of suspicion" and is "so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing."
Indeed, Colorado is one of 25 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that currently allow medical marijuana, recreational marijuana or both. "Thus," the ruling holds, "the Officer’s reasoning would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country."
The bottom lines on the subject: "It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence, and thus any fact that would inculpate every resident of a state cannot support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, it is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate.... Absent a demonstrated extraordinary circumstance, the continued use of state residency as a justification for the fact of or continuation of a stop is impermissible."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Opinions don't get much more definitive than that. Here's the ruling.