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Eighth Circuit Rules Officer’s Inability to Read Temporary Vehicle Tag Does Not Justify Traffic Stop, Evidence Obtained Must be Suppressed

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that evidence obtained during a traffic stop that was not supported by reasonable suspicion must be suppressed. In its April 13, 2018, opinion, the Court said in this case, a police officer’s inability to read a temporary registration card in the back window of a vehicle was not “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law.”

On July 1, 2016, Waterloo, Iowa, police officer Diane Del Valle followed a BMW driven by a gang member believed to have been involved in a recent shooting. Del Valle wanted to stop the vehicle to investigate the shooting but needed a reason to do so. She saw the BMW had a temporary dealer card taped in the back window and radioed to a fellow officer that “you can see a plate, but you can’t read what’s on it.” The other officer, Jamie Sullivan, replied, “there you go.” Del Valle initiated an “equipment stop,” during which she smelled marijuana and another officer found a gun.

The driver and passenger, Joshua Rode and Daytoviane McLemore, were arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by an unlawful drug user, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(3) and 924(a)(2). Both defendants moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment requirement that a police officer have reasonable suspicion or probable cause prior to stopping a vehicle. The magistrate recommended denying the motion, but the district court judge disagreed and suppressed the evidence. The Government appealed, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Government argued that United States v. Givens, 763 F.3d 987 (8th Cir. 2014), controlled the outcome of the case. In Givens, the court affirmed the denial of a suppression motion when a police officer stopped a vehicle with temporary tags because the officer could not read the tag due to darkness and the angle of the vehicle’s windshield. Crucially, however, the officer in Givens could usually read these tags at night, had prior experience with fraudulent registration cards, and did not know whether the paper in the window was, in fact, a registration card.

That “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law” was absent in the instant case. The Court found three important facts that distinguished Givens: (1) Del Valle did not identify what violation of state law the BMW operator was suspected of committing (important because Iowa law allows a vehicle to be operated with dealer tags for 45 days after purchase); (2) the temporary registration card was never introduced into evidence (important because the Government did not even dispute that the temporary card was legal); and (3) Del Valle did not testify that she could usually read temporary registration cards at night or that the local police had previous problems with fraudulent cards.

In distinguishing Givens and affirming the suppression order, the Court noted that “the government’s position in this case would mean that an Iowa police officer may stop a vehicle displaying a proper form of temporary registration card whenever the officer cannot read the dealer registration number and the card’s expiration date from inside the officer’s following police cruiser.” Such a rule would violate the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that an officer have reasonable suspicion that the law was violated prior to stopping a vehicle, said the Court.

The Court observed that the Fourth Circuit similarly rejected the stopping of vehicles based upon similar facts. In United States v. Wilson, 205 F.3d 720 (4th Cir. 2000), a South Carolina police officer stopped the defendant’s car to determine whether its North Carolina temporary paper tag was valid. The officer was unable to read the expiration date in the dark. Thus, the court concluded the officer “had no suspicion at all” that the defendant had committed any crime. The court noted that if it were to permit a traffic stop under these circumstances, it would allow police officers to randomly stop any vehicle with a temporary tag. The court declined to do so, stating the “Fourth Amendment does not allow a policeman to stop a car just because it had temporary tags.”

Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s granting of the motion to suppress the firearm evidence as a result of the traffic stop. See: United States v. McLemore, 887 F.3d 861 (8th Cir. 2018). 

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