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Vehicle Stops:
Does a Motorist have a Privacy Interest in their License Plate
By Jack Ryan

Note: Link to "Vehicle Stops" lesson plan at the bottom of this article.

All motor vehicle stops must be supported by some level of proof. In other words, officers are not allowed to randomly stop vehicles. i  It is generally not possible to make the stop of a moving vehicle a consensual since an officer must show authority (turn on the emergency light and/or siren) and the motorist must comply (by pulling over) before the stop is accomplished. Anytime you have a law enforcement show of authority and compliance by the citizen, a seizure has occurred and thus, the officer must have, at a minimum, reasonable suspicion to believe that the vehicle is involved in unlawful activity. ii 

As law enforcement has become more technologically advanced, more and more agencies have added mobile data terminals or computers to their law enforcement vehicles. Wireless technology has given officers access to all types of information at the touch of a button, greatly enhancing the ability to fight crime. The enhanced technology has created new strategies by some officers. An example is provided by what some officers refer to as “BINGO HUNTING.” Essentially “BINGO HUNTING” involves randomly observing license plates while on routine patrol, inputting the data from the license plate into the computer and BINGO, finding out that the vehicle is unregistered, stolen, or maybe involved in some other criminal activity. The legal question that developed as a result of this type of activity by officers is whether or not an officer can randomly run license plates without any suspicion whatsoever that the operator or the vehicle has done anything at all. In other words, does an officer need reasonable suspicion before he or she can run the observable data from a license plate. The issue of whether there is any privacy interest in a license plate has been addressed by numerous state courts.

State of Rhode Island v. Bjerke, iii  provides a pre-mobile data terminal type case. On April 27th 1995, the Warwick Rhode Island Police Department received an anonymous call of a possible drunk driver at about 4:00 p.m. The caller provided the license plate of the vehicle as “{# removed}.” As the officer drove into the area where the vehicle was said to be operating, the dispatcher conducted a computer check of the license plate with the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles. This check revealed that the registration of the vehicle was suspended. This information was relayed to the officer who was investigating. The officer spotted the vehicle in question and without observing any driving conduct on the part of the operator which would provide reasonable suspicion to believe that the operator was operating under the influence, the officer pulled the car over. Upon stopping the vehicle, the officer determined that Bjerke’s license was suspended and that he was intoxicated. Bjerke was charged. At Bjerke’s trial, the traffic court judge ruled that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Bjerke based on a suspicion of drunk driving and thus, everything which resulted from the stop was the fruit of the poisonous tree.

The question in Bjerke revolves around the running of the license plate. Clearly an anonymous tip which merely provides a subject’s (or vehicle’s) location and description, would be insufficient in itself to justify a stop. iv  Thus, the stop must be supported by the fact that the officer knew, prior to the stop that the registration was suspended. If the running of the plate without some level of suspicion was improper, then anything flowing from that information would be fruit of the poisonous tree.

On appeal “Bjerke turns to the computer check of his license plate and contends that it was a search governed by the Fourth Amendment. He claims that the police lacked the requisite quantum of knowledge to justify a "search" of his license plate.” In response, the Rhode Island Supreme Court asserted: “In considering his contention, we point out that a Fourth Amendment search is only involved when the government intrudes into areas in which an individual is said to have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This expectation of privacy must be actually held by an individual and must be objectively reasonable.”

In rejecting Bjerke’s argument the court concluded: “We do not believe that either Bjerke or the public at large has any reasonable expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle registration license plate. We reach this conclusion in view of the fact that such plates and the information behind them are within the control and custody of the state through the Registry of Motor Vehicles. We do not believe that either Bjerke or the public at large has an expectation of privacy from the state when it is well known to all that the state is the very body that issues, controls, and regulates motor vehicle registration license plates. Furthermore it seems plain to us that there can be no expectation of privacy in one's license plate when it hangs from the front and the rear of one's vehicle for all the world to see. This conclusion is consistent with other jurisdictions that have pondered this issue.” v 

A case from Massachusetts reached a similar conclusion to Bjerke. Commonwealth v. Starr vi also challenged the validity of a traffic stop that was based upon information discovered from running the license plate prior to the stop. An officer from Douglas Massachusetts was behind a brown Ford Thunderbird and decided to run the license plate. There was nothing in the operation of this vehicle that would lead the officer to believe there was any wrongdoing on the part of the motorist. Upon running the plate through dispatch, the officer learned that the plate actually belonged on a blue Ford Taurus. The officer pulled the car over based upon the discrepancy. The driver offered that the vehicle had just been purchased by his son, but had no documentation to support his story. The officer ran the driver’s information and determined that he had a suspended license. The driver, Starr, was arrested and charged. At trial, he challenged the arrest based upon the stop. His argument: the officer had conducted a search by running his license plate. The search was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause and therefore was unlawful. He went on to argue that the stop was the fruit of this improper search and thus everything that flowed from it must be suppressed.

In rejecting Starr’s claim, the Massachusetts Court concluded: “Societal beliefs, reflecting our common sense, undoubtedly support the conclusion that it is unreasonable to claim privacy in that which one consciously places in public view. That conclusion is expressed in the established principle that ‘what a person knowingly exposes to the public . . . is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.’ The applicability of that principle to what is displayed on the outside of a motor vehicle is well recognized. ‘The exterior of a car . . . is thrust into the public eye, and thus to examine it does not constitute a search.'" vii 

A case from the State of New Hampshire provides a slightly different spin on the issue of randomly running registration checks. In State v. Richter viii the New Hampshire Supreme Court reviewed a traffic stop that was the result of an officer in Salem, New Hampshire randomly running a license plate. The facts indicate that the officer did not observe any motor vehicle violation and merely ran the plate when the vehicle drove past. The computer check did not reveal a problem with the vehicle’s registration, but instead indicated that the owner of the vehicle had a suspended license. Based on this information, the officer stopped the car and subsequently arrested the driver who, as it turned out, was the registered owner of the vehicle. The driver, challenged his arrest on the grounds that the officer had no way of knowing, simply based on the computer check, that the registered owner was driving the vehicle at the time.

In its review of the case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court, citing cases from around the country, asserted that it was clear that a person would not have a privacy interest in their license plate such that an operator could challenge the computer check of the plate. The question in this case was whether the officer could then infer that the registered owner was the operator of the vehicle and stop the car based on the inference that the operator did not have a proper license. The court concluded: “In this case, an officer observed a vehicle, which he properly determined to be registered to an owner who had a suspended driver's license, being driven on a public roadway. The officer observed nothing that would indicate that the driver was not the owner. It was reasonable for the officer to infer that the driver was the owner of the vehicle. ix Such an inference gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that the driver was committing a violation of RSA 263:64. We therefore conclude that the officer properly initiated a traffic stop to investigate whether the defendant was driving his vehicle in violation of the law.”

Courts continue to conclude that there is no right to privacy and no 4th Amendment search when an officer randomly or without reasonable suspicion runs a license plate. Further, it appears that information that is obtained with respect to the registered owner will also support a seizure by law enforcement. A case from the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit provides an example. x  The facts in the Ellison case began with an officer who observed a van parked in the fire lane outside a shopping area. The officer did not issue a ticket or tell the driver, who was in the van, to move. Instead the officer parked and entered the plate of the van into his computer. The officer’s checks revealed that the owner of the van was the subject of an outstanding felony warrant. While the officer awaited backup, a person came out of the shopping area and got into the passenger side of the van. As the van drove off, the officer and his backup pulled the van over. The registered owner of the van was the passenger. As the officers arrested Ellison, the passenger, they recovered two guns from him. He was subsequently prosecuted in federal court as being a felon in possession of firearms. Ellison filed a motion to suppress the guns as the fruit of the poisonous tree. The trial court found that the van, which was occupied, was not illegally parked and therefore the officer had no justification for running the plate. As such, the guns were the fruit of a bad stop and should be suppressed. This prompted the prosecution’s appeal.

The decision of the trial court was overturned. The United States Court of Appeal noted that every court that has considered the issue of privacy in license plates has concluded that no such privacy exists. xi  In conclusion the court assert: “Thus, so long as the officer had a right to be in a position to observe the defendant's license plate, any such observation and corresponding use of the information on the plate does not violate the Fourth Amendment. In this case, Officer Keeley had a right to be in the parking lot observing the van -- he was in a public place conducting a routine patrol. The district court's finding that the van was not parked illegally is thus irrelevant -- such a finding goes only to probable cause, which is not necessary absent a Fourth Amendment privacy interest. Once Officer Keeley conducted the check and discovered the outstanding warrant, he then had probable cause to pull over the vehicle and arrest the man identified as Ellison. The arrest and resulting search during which the handguns were found in no way violated the Fourth Amendment, and the district court's order granting the motion to suppress was in error.”

 

CITATIONS:

  1. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979) (holding that random stops of vehicle are unconstitutional).
  2. California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991).
  3. State of Rhode Island v. Bjerke, 697 A.2d 1069 (R.I. Supreme Court 1997).
  4. See, Florida v. J.L. 529 U.S. 266 (2000).
  5. See State v. Myrick, 282 N.J. Super. 285, 659 A.2d 976 (N.J. Super. 1995); cf. United States v. Walraven, 892 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1989) (no privacy interest in license plates).
  6. Commonwealth v. Starr, 773 N.E. 2d 981 (Mass. Appeals Ct. 2002).
  7. Citing Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347 (1967) (only an expectation of privacy if society accepts as reasonable) and New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986) (no expectation of privacy in vehicle identification number).
  8. State v. Richter, 765 A.2d 687 (New Hampshire Supreme Court 2000).
  9. See Village of Lake in the Hills v. Lloyd, 227 Ill. App. 3d 351, 591 N.E.2d 524, 526, 169 Ill. Dec. 351 (Ill. App. Ct.) (recognizing common sense presumption that a vehicle is being driven by its owner), appeal denied, 146 Ill. 2d 630, 176 Ill. Dec. 801, 602 N.E.2d 455 (Ill. 1992).
  10. U.S. v. Ellison, 462 F.3d 557 (6th Cir. 2006).
  11. Id. “Every court that has addressed this issue has reached the same conclusion. The Tenth Circuit has held on two occasions that license plates are "in plain view on the outside of the car" and thus, are "subject to seizure" because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. United States v. Matthews, 615 F.2d 1279, 1285 (10th Cir. 1980); see also United States v. Walraven, 892 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1989). The Fifth Circuit has also held that "[a] motorist has no privacy interest in her license plate number." Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston, 185 F.3d 521, 529 (5th Cir. 1999); accord United States v. Sparks, 37 Fed. Appx. 826, 829 (8th Cir. 2002); Hallstein v. City of Hermosa Beach, 87 Fed. Appx. 17, 19 (9th Cir. 2003). The only two panels of this court to address the question have reached the same result. United States v. $14,000.00 in U.S. Currency, 2000 U.S. App. LEXIS 2429, No. 98-4380, 2000 WL 222587, at *3 (6th Cir. Feb. 14, 2000) (finding no Fourth Amendment violation in a computer check of a license plate); United States v. Batten, 73 Fed. Appx. 831, 832 (6th Cir. 2003) (same). As one panel wrote, "[T]here is no case law indicating that there can be any reasonable expectation of privacy in license plates which are required by law to be displayed in public on the front and rear of any vehicle on a public street." Batten, 73 Fed. Appx. at 832; see also Wayne R. LaFave, 1 Search & Seizure § 2.5(b) (4th ed. 2004) ("[I]t is apparent that when a vehicle is parked on the street or in a lot or at some other location where it is readily subject to observation by members of the public, it is no search for the police to look at the exterior of the vehicle.") (citing Katz and Olabisiomotosho ).

 

The following link will direct you to the lesson plan designed to accompany this article: Lesson Plan: Vehicle Stops
patc.com/special/vehicle-stops_lesson-plan.pdf

Note:  Adobe PDF required


 

 


About the Author:

Jack Ryan is the Co-Director of the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com) and an attorney in Rhode Island, a graduate Juris Doctorate, Cum Laude Suffolk University Law School. Jack has 20 years police experience as a police officer with the Providence Police Department, Providence, RI.

Along with Instructing for the Public Agency Training Council, Jack conducts policy and procedure audits for large and small agencies across the United States.

Jack Ryan has written the official policies for every police department in over 5 states.

Jack Ryan

Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute
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Indianapolis, Indiana 46241

Phone: (800)365-0119
Fax: (317) 821-5096
Cell: (401) 692-1555

 

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