Court: Cops Can’t Stop You Just Because Your State Has Legal Weed

Drivers in states where marijuana is legal cannot be pulled over in other states by cops who make assumptions based on solely on the origin of the license plate. That’s according to a ruling by federal justices with the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Tenth Circuit. marijuana2

Mind you, this ruling – Vasquez v. Lewis and Jimerson – is technically only applicable in the Tenth Circuit, which covers the six states of Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, plus those portions of the Yellowstone National Park extending into Montana and Idaho. However, given that this is not an issue that has arisen at this level in other jurisdictions, it’s likely to have set a clear precedent on the constitutionality of such practices. Some have referred to policing in this manner as, “license plate profiling.”

It’s not as major of a problem here in Florida because not many other nearby states have allowed legal marijuana, even for medicinal purposes. But that’s not to say someone traveling from Washington or Colorado might not get the side eye from law enforcement here. Based on the reasoning of the 10th Circuit, this is wrong. 

The case involves a man with Colorado plates who was traveling on Interstate 70 in Kansas. The officers who stopped him pulled him over to search his vehicle at least partially on the grounds that he was from a state that is known to be home to medical marijuana dispensaries. (Colorado is also one of the handful of states that has legalized marijuana for recreational use.) The officers also indicated in their report that Colorado was a “drug source area,” and that I-70 was a “known drug corridor.” Now, let’s pause for a moment and note that I-70 runs more than 2,000 miles between the East Coast and Utah; the insinuation that it’s used primarily as a drug corridor is ludicrous.

The officers also asserted the man was “acting nervously,” although it’s unclear how they would have noted that when they also said they couldn’t see the temporary tag taped on the rear window due to the vehicle’s window tinting.

The law enforcement officers initiated the stop. They noted he had a blanket and pillow in his vehicle, which they indicated, “Might have obscured something.”

They gave him a warning for failure to properly display his temporary tag, and that should have been the end of the encounter. But they wanted to search the vehicle. The driver refused. Instead of letting him go, they forced him to wait for 20 minutes until a canine unit drug-sniffing dog could arrive. This is a tactic the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional as of April 2015. The dog didn’t find anything and plaintiff was released.

He then filed a civil lawsuit, arguing his constitutional rights had been violated. Specifically, he argued his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated.

The trial court dismissed his lawsuit, but the 10th Circuit revived it on appeal, reversing that dismissal. The court ruled that plaintiff’s conduct – taken together as a whole – was not suspicious. Further, police can’t simply cite the origin of one’s license plate as grounds for suspicion.

Our criminal defense attorneys in Fort Lauderdale know that this sets an important legal precedent that we hope other jurisdictions will follow, particularly for as long as we continue to have a patchwork of marijuana legislation from state-to-state.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Vasquez v. Lewis and Jimerson , Aug. 23, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Goodman v. Florida – DUI Manslaughter Case Questions Forwarded to Florida Supreme Court, Aug. 31, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog