War on Drugs

Appeals Court Says Colorado Plates Don't Justify Detaining Drivers in Kansas

Reasonable suspicion of marijuana smuggling requires more than living in a state that allows medical or recreational use.



Driving from Aurora, Colorado, to Elkton, Maryland, in December 2011, Peter Vasquez was pulled over on Interstate 70 by Kansas Highway Patrol officers because the temporary tag for his car, which he had taped to the inside of the tinted rear window, was hard to read. After verifying that the car was properly registered, Officers Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis should have sent Vasquez on his way. But he struck them as suspicious, largely because he had started his journey in "a drug source area" known for its medical marijuana dispensaries. So they detained him and fruitlessly searched his car after getting permission from a dog.

Yesterday, in a ruling that allows Vasquez to continue suing Jimerson and Lewis for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, a federal appeals court emphatically rejected the idea that plates from a state that allows medical or recreational use of marijuana should carry significant weight in deciding whether police have the "reasonable suspicion" they need to justify prolonging a traffic stop. "The Officers impermissibly relied on Vasquez's status as a resident of Colorado to justify the search of his vehicle," said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

Jimerson and Lewis cited other reasons for detaining Vasquez: He was driving alone at night on a "known drug corridor" in a relatively old car, had a blanket and a pillow in the backseat, had left fingerprints on the trunk, and seemed nervous. But his Colorado plates loomed large in their evaluation, raising the specter of marijuana smuggling from a state that had loosened a prohibition Kansas still enthusiastically enforced. Jimerson and Lewis figured that Vasquez's sinister origin, combined with those other incriminating details, amply justified their decision to detain him long after resolving the original reason for the stop.

Nonsense, says the 10th Circuit:

Such conduct, taken together, is hardly suspicious, nor is it particularly unusual….

The Officers rely heavily on Vasquez's residency because Colorado is "known to be home to medical marijuana dispensaries." But we find this justification, in isolation or in tandem with other considerations, unconvincing….Currently, twenty-five states permit marijuana use for medical purposes, with Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. permitting some recreational use under state law. Thus, the Officers' reasoning would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country. It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence, and thus any fact that would inculpate every resident of a state cannot support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, 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, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate.

Not only was the justification for Vasquez's detention constitutionally inadequate, the 10th Circuit says, but Jimerson and Lewis should have known that, meaning they are not entitled to "qualified immunity." In a 1997 case involving "strikingly similar circumstances," the court rejected detention of a driver based on innocent details such as nervousness, the car's age, supposedly unusual items inside it, and a trip originating in a "source state." Jimerson in particular should have recognized the speciousness of such excuses, since he was one of the cops accused of violating that driver's Fourth Amendment rights.