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Kansas Cops Can’t Stop Every Car With Colorado Plates, Federal Appeals Court Rules

August 24, 2016
New York City, New York - June 25, 2011: Close up of Colorado, Alabama and Hawaii license plates with other various states on the outside wall of a gas station
Live in a legal cannabis state? Planning a road trip? Here’s some good news: A federal appeals court just ruled that police can’t search your car merely because you have out-of-state plates.

The new precedent comes courtesy of Peter Vasquez, who was pulled over late one night in December 2011 as he drove his recently purchased 1992 BMW sedan eastbound on I-70 through Kansas. Police said they couldn’t read the temporary license tag through the car’s tinted rear window.

Vasquez, at the time a resident of Colorado, was the car’s sole occupant. In the passenger seat next to him were blankets and a pillow, and one officer suspected that additional blankets in the back seat were covering a large object. When officers asked where he was headed, Vasquez replied that he had just moved to Maryland and was on his way there.

After issuing a warning and starting to walk away, the other officer returned to the vehicle and asked whether there were any drugs inside. Vasquez said no. The officer asked to search the car, but Vasquez refused. Officers detained him, and about 15 minutes later a trooper arrived with a drug-sniffing dog.

The search revealed nothing illegal.

In the aftermath, Vasquez sued the two officers, Dax Lewis and Richard Jimerson, alleging that they violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him and searching his car without reasonable suspicion. On Tuesday, the 10th Circuit agreed.

Officers cited a number of factors in their effort to justify the search. Vasquez was driving alone at night on I-70 — “a known drug corridor,” they said — on his way from Aurora, Colo. — “a drug source area.” The back seat didn’t contain items officers expected to see in a car of someone moving across the country, they claimed, and what items Vasquez did have appeared to be hidden from view. To cap it all off, the officers said, Vasquez seemed “scared to death.”

In a majority opinion published Tuesday, however, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carlos F. Lucero said he didn’t buy it.

“Such conduct, taken together, is hardly suspicious,” the court wrote, “nor is it particularly unusual.”

Officers in the case relied heavily on Vasquez’s Colorado residency because the state was “known to be home to medical marijuana dispensaries.” (Colorado didn’t legalize recreational cannabis until 2012, but medical marijuana has been legal there since 2001. The state’s medical dispensary boom began in 2009.) The court rejected that argument, calling it “so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing” considering that half of all states now allow medical cannabis.

“The Officer’s reasoning would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country,” Lucero wrote, noting also that “the government has argued that almost every major city in the United States is a drug source area.”

As for Vasquez traveling on a “known drug corridor,” the opinion points out that “I-70 is a major corridor between Colorado and the East Coast. It could equally be said that it is suspicious to not drive from Colorado to Maryland along I-70.”

In short, wrote Lucero, “We cannot think of a scenario in which a combination of otherwise innocent factors becomes suspicious because the individual is from one of the aforementioned twenty-five states or the District of Columbia.”

The opinion is a victory for civil rights defenders, but it’s not exactly out of the blue. The 10th Circuit previously ruled, nearly 20 years ago, “under strikingly similar circumstances, that an officer — in fact, one of the two officers before us now — did not have reasonable suspicion to further detain a defendant.”

In that case, United States v. Wood, Officer Jimerson detained a car and its contents in March 1995, after pulling over the driver and issuing a warning for speeding. “The facts of these cases are almost indistinguishable,” Lucero wrote. In both, the drivers were traveling through Kansas from “drug source” states in cars that Jimerson deemed suspicious. And in both, the court found the stops unconstitutional.

“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,” the majority wrote, “and time to stop the practice of detention and search of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state plate.”

Judge Robert E. Bacharach joined Lucero in the majority panel opinion. Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich dissented, calling the case “a close call on reasonable suspicion” but opining that, regardless, Vasquez failed to properly assert his right to sue the officers.

Tuesday’s opinion, Vasquez v. Lewis, applies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.

  • calvet11

    Doe’s anyone else see the stupid situation the country is in. Of course you do. Half has some kind of cannabis reform and half do not. Good God the rest of the world is looking at the USA as some sort of retarded step child as far as cannabis law is applied here. Nothing but a jumbled up mess of half-assed legislation applied sometimes and sometimes not. I know it’s hard to please everyone, but good God it’s just a plant. Jesus wept for the idiots holding on to their old ideas on cannabis. Sooner or later it will come down to, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because of Money. Morality has nothing to do with it, it’s all about the money. Sick kids die, teenager’s lives destroyed for a joint, prisons filled to overflowing, never mind that, how can I make a profit ? Clowns in the DEA, FBI, DoJ would have to find real jobs. Money-Money-Money

    • Jan

      and all god/dess’ children said “amen.”

  • Kiel McWhirter

    Good luck getting a cop to follow a law. If they aren’t allowed to use that excuse anymore, they will just make up a new one.

    • Jan

      yup. i’m curious what the warning said – that vasquez must make the temp plates darker so they show thru the window better, or lighten up the tint – just to make kansas happy as he drove through? i’m thinking that state’s got an inflated opinion of itself…

      • Kiel McWhirter

        It does. That’s my home state. I left a number of years ago and would love to back. If it weren’t for the people that live there, I’d actually consider it. It’s a state that refuses to move forward and insists on supporting ideals and policies that are against their own best interest.

  • Naz Herra

    Therefore i could have as many different States plate as i can,just to make sure stoners here in US received their package safely without stress @ kushmark147 at google mail dot com or follow on Fb. Waxs,Shatter and Oils for Vaping are available,lost cost shipment to any state.

  • luap l nottoc

    its unfortunate that the laws in this country are such that no matter what you can be found guilty for ANY matter the state chooses, the poor guy in this situation, having a STATE fabricated temp. tag, made in a way as to make it easy for the cop / DA to build a case of whatever ,and win ,we the public have no leg to stand on if ,the state decides to make a case against you!!! I read part of the cops testimony stating “,the man was extremely nervous”,
    Duh!!!! ,late at night ,alone,on a dark lonely highway in the middle of nowhere w/ 2 armed individuals,DAMN I would be filling my pants too! ,considering the way cops are acting these days,and the pressure “they” are under,the man had a “latino”name ,of course he would be scared,and then to top it off ,MORE cops and dogs ,
    “YOU WOULDN’T? ” ,Mr. Policeman?????
    any way I believe this country needs to give up on “cannibis prohibition”,it’s a lost cause ,and the cops have better things to do than try to fabricate another life messed up by court and laws ,written only to screw us,
    CONGRATS ,MR. V ,make them tell the truth ,for it will set you free!!!!