Van Teamer v. State of Florida – Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals
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Recently, the Florida First District Court of Appeal made a decision concerning the issue of an unconstitutional search and seizure. In this case, drugs were discovered in the defendant’s vehicle after he was pulled over because the color of his vehicle did not match the color indicated on his motor vehicle registration records. However, does inconsistency in color alone constitute sufficient basis to support probable cause for an investigatory stop?
In this case, while on patrol the law enforcement officer observed a bright green Chevrolet driving in traffic. The driver of the Chevrolet was obeying all traffic laws and the deputy did not observe any suspicious behavior. The deputy ran the license plate number through the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Upon learning the license plate was registered to a blue Chevrolet, the deputy pulled the vehicle over based only on the color inconsistency. Upon interviewing the driver, the deputy was advised the vehicle was recently painted thus explaining the color inconsistency. However, during the stop, the deputy detected an odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle and conducted a search. His search resulted in the driver’s arrest and subsequent conviction for trafficking in cocaine, possession of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Changing the color of a vehicle is not illegal in the State of Florida and the State does not require an owner to report the color change to the DMV. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the results of the stop as an unconstitutional search, arguing the color inconsistency alone was an insufficient basis to justify an investigatory stop. Prosecutors argued the color inconsistency, despite being the result of innocent activity, represents potential illegal activity of making a false application on vehicle registration and therefore sufficient basis for an investigatory stop.
The Court acknowledged any discrepancy between a vehicle’s plates and the registration may legitimately raise a concern that the vehicle is stolen or the plates were swapped from another vehicle. However, the Court must weigh that level of concern against a citizen’s right under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.” This includes the right of persons driving on public roads to not have their travel and privacy interfered with at the unbridled discretion of police officers.
The decision by police officers to stop a vehicle is reasonable when the police have probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred. Probable cause to pull over a car exists when the facts known to the officer at the time would cause a reasonable person to believe a criminal offense has been committed. At the very least, to justify a stop an officer must have an articulable and reasonable suspicion the driver violated, is violating, or is about to violate a traffic law.
The Court examined case law and, where registration color discrepancy is at issue, determined one of several factors support a reasonable suspicion:
- out-of-state plates
- presence in a high-crime area
- vehicle’s location in an area known for car theft
- speeding or other traffic violation
- absence of owner in vehicle
The Appellate Court also acknowledged the lack of guidance for police officers in Florida’s case law concerning stopping a vehicle for innocent behavior on the part of the driver. Ultimately, the Court determined color discrepancy alone does not warrant an investigatory stop and reversed the Defendant’s final judgment and sentence.
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