Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can the Police Stop a Car With a Temporary Registration Tag?

Here is the scenario: Police run a DMV check on a car they are following and learn that it is two years out of registration. But the car has a temporary permit affixed to the rear window. Can they make a traffic stop?
According to the Second District Court of Appeal, the answer is “yes.” Regardless of whether the vehicle bears a temporary permit, a DMV check showing expired registration provides sufficient grounds to stop the car and detain its occupants.  In the words of the appeals court:  “An innocent explanation for a possible registration violation,” The court concluded the fact the car had a tem sticker “does not preclude an officer from effecting a stop to investigate the ambiguity.”  According to the court, “The question is not whether defendant's vehicle was in compliance with the law, but whether [the officers] had an articulable suspicion it was not. . . . The DMV record showing expired registration provided the required articulable suspicion there was something amiss with the registration and justified the vehicle stop for Fourth Amendment purposes.”
Attempting to reconcile the recent number of cases on this topic, the court distilled the following rules: 1. “In the absence of other incriminating or ambiguous evidence,” a vehicle displaying a valid temporary permit and no license plates may not be stopped; 2. “If the officer does not see the temporary permit and the vehicle has no license plates, it is reasonable for the officer to make a traffic stop;” 3. “A vehicle with expired license tabs, but displaying a temporary permit, may not be stopped if the officer has additional information that there is an ongoing process to cure the lapse in registration;” 4.  “A vehicle displaying a valid temporary permit may be stopped where there is some objective indicia that something may be amiss with the registration or permit, such as a missing front license plate; “ 5. “a vehicle displaying no license plates and no temporary permit visible from the rear may be stopped for investigation;” and, 6. A vehicle that the DMV says is not registered but nevertheless displays a temporary permit may be stopped to “investigate the ambiguity” concerning its registration.
It is certainly interesting to compare the Court's legal analysis with the reason the officer actually gave for the stop. He thought a temporary permit authorized driving to and from a smog check only. The court noted that “We do not decide this case based on Officer Moon's subjective belief the temporary permit only allowed the vehicle on the road for the limited purpose of obtaining a smog check—a belief that apparently has no basis in law.”