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Police Can Legally Stop a Vehicle in California Even If a Temporary Operating Permit Attached To a Rear Window

The California appellate court has held that even though a vehicle does in fact have a temporary operating permit displayed somewhere on the vehicle, if the police officer does not see the temporary operating permit, and the vehicle does not have license plates, then the stop of the vehicle is legal. People v. Dotson ﴾3rd Dist., Nov. 30, 2009﴿ 2009 Cal. App. LEXIS 1904﴿.

In Dotson, the defendant, a convicted felon, was found to be in possession of a firearm, ammunition, and methamphetamine when a police officer stopped his vehicle. Although the vehicle had a temporary operating permit, an arresting officer had testified that at the time of the stop he saw that defendant’s vehicle did not have license plates. In fact, in a dimly lit parking lot, the officer had a hard time identifying even the color of the vehicle. He saw that there were no license plates, so he made the stop. The defendant argued that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to make an investigatory stop since the defendant’s car had a temporary operating permit attached to the rear window.

The court disagreed with the defendant. Even though a vehicle is in compliance with the California Vehicle Code despite missing license plates if a valid temporary operating permit is correctly displayed, the question for the court is not whether the vehicle was in full compliance with the law at the time of the stop, but whether a police officer had articulable suspicion that it was not in compliance. In the absence of evidence that the officer saw a temporary operating permit, he had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that defendant was in violation of the vehicle registration laws. Therefore, the stop did not violate defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

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