On February 27, 2023, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Brown[i], which is instructive regarding when a discrepancy between the actual color of a vehicle and the color listed on the registration can amount to reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop.  The relevant facts of Brown are as follows:

In the early morning hours of July 18, 2020, Cedar Rapids Police Department Officer Kyzer Moore was patrolling a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city. The neighborhood had been the site of several crimes involving stolen vehicles with “switched” license plates or disguising paint jobs. Officer Moore was involved in several of those cases.

While patrolling, Officer Moore noticed Brown’s orange motorcycle because it was the only vehicle out at that time of day. Brown did not commit any traffic violations and the motorcycle’s license plate was properly displayed. Officer Moore ran a license check and learned that the plate was registered to a blue motorcycle.

Officer Moore followed the motorcycle as it turned onto Third Street Southwest. He saw that the motorcycle was about to pull into the driveway of a residence on Third Street Southwest. The Third Street residence was familiar to law enforcement as one where narcotics, stolen property, and stolen vehicles were frequently found. Officer Moore activated his lights, and Brown came to a stop. A pat-down search of Brown revealed a firearm, several knives, and brass knuckles.[ii]

Brown was ultimately charged with three firearm-related offenses under federal law.  He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officer lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop him.  The district court disagreed and denied the motion to suppress.  Brown appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The issue on appeal was whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Brown on his motorcycle when the color of the motorcycle was orange and the color listed on the registration was blue.

On appeal the Eighth Circuit discussed the legal principles relevant to the issue in this case.  The court stated

A traffic stop is a reasonable seizure if it is supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. United States v. Allen, 43 F.4th 901, 907 (8th Cir. 2022). Reasonable suspicion is “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” Kansas v. Glover, 589 U.S. —, 140 S. Ct. 1183, 1187, 206 L. Ed. 2d 412 (2020). “The standard depends on the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” Id. at 1188 (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted). Officers are allowed “to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that might well elude an untrained person.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273, 122 S. Ct. 744, 151 L. Ed. 2d 740 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). In analyzing whether an officer had reasonable suspicion, we look to the totality of the circumstances. Glover, 140 S. Ct. at 1191.[iii]

The court of appeals noted that, since they must look to the totality of the circumstances, the color discrepancy is just one factor to consider when determining if reasonable suspicion existed to justify a stop of Brown.  The officer also testified that the neighborhood where he saw the motorcycle was known by him for vehicle theft, suspended driver’s licenses, and a stolen trailer that had an improper tag.  The court of appeals noted

[T]he fact that the stop occurred in a ‘high crime area’ [is] among the relevant contextual considerations in a Terry analysis.”); United States v. Dortch, 868 F.3d 674, 680 (8th Cir. 2017); See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124, 120 S. Ct. 673, 145 L. Ed. 2d 570 (2000)[iv]

Additionally, Brown had stopped at a house that was known by the officer for narcotics, stolen property and stolen vehicles.

Brown argued that the Seventh Circuit case, the United States v. Uribe[v], supports his argument that reasonable suspicion did not exist for his stop.  In Uribe, Seventh Circuit held that a color discrepancy alone does not provide sufficient reasonable suspicion of vehicle theft to stop a vehicle, absent other evidence.

In Brown’s case, the Eighth Circuit distinguished Uribe because the color discrepancy wasn’t the only reason for the stop.  In addition to color discrepancy, the officer noted his knowledge of the crime in the neighborhood where he stopped Brown, and his knowledge and experience at the specific location of the stop.

Brown also argued that color discrepancies can occur because of innocent reasons, such as a vehicle was painted or clerical error.  However, the court of appeals stated

The Supreme Court has “consistently recognized that reasonable suspicion need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.” Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 403, 134 S. Ct. 1683, 188 L. Ed. 2d 680 (2014)[vi]

The court of appeals then held

Our task is not to analyze the individual fact of a color discrepancy “in isolation” but rather in the totality of the circumstances. See id. In all, Officer Moore’s extensive testimony about his personal knowledge and experience with license-plate anomalies and vehicular crimes both at the specific location of the stop and in the surrounding neighborhood satisfy us that he had reasonable suspicion to stop Brown.[vii]

Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

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Citations

[i] No. 22-2133 (8th Cir. Decided February 27, 2023)

[ii] Id. at 2

[iii] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)

[v] 709 F.3d 646 (7th Cir. 2013)

[vi] Brown at 8 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 8-9

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