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California Appeals Court Reverses Drug Conviction on Unreasonable Stop

People v. Hernandez (2008 DJDAR 18109)

Officer may not stop vehicle displaying temporary operating permit in lieu of license plates on hunch that permit is forged

The California Supreme Court recently held that an officer who sees a vehicle displaying a temporary operating permit in lieu of license plates may not stop the vehicle simply because he or she believes that such permits are often forged or otherwise invalid. To support a stop, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that the particular permit is invalid. Otherwise, any car with such a permit could be stopped without particularized cause.

Sheriff’s deputy saw defendant driving a pickup truck with no license plates, but displaying a temporary operating permit in the rear window.

Any vehicle driven on the road must display a valid license plate or a valid temporary permit. Nothing about the permit seemed amiss and the deputy saw no other violations. Nevertheless, he stopped defendant. He discounted the presence of the apparently valid permit because in his experience, such permits are “very often” forged or have been issued for a different vehicle, or the vehicle is stolen. Defendant was subsequently arrested for among other things, being under the influence drugs.

After defendant’s motion to suppress evidence was denied, he was later convicted in a jury trial. The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and remanded. The Supreme Court then heard this case.

The Court reasoned that except in those situations in which there is at least a reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed, or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court held that the deputy could not point to any reasonable facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that the defendant, in particular, may have been acting illegally. Knowledge that some people driving with a temporary permit may be violating the law is not enough to effectuate a stop.

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