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Stop – Basis – Automobile: Display of Temporary Plate

State v. Raymond Lord, Jr., 2006 WI 122, reversing unpublished opinion
For Lord: George A. Tauscheck

Issue: Whether the police may stop an automobile solely because it displays a temporary license plate.

Holding:

¶4      … Law enforcement officers cannot stop an automobile to determine whether it is properly registered unless the officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that either the automobile is being driven contrary to the laws governing its operation or that any occupant is subject to seizure in connection with the violation of an applicable law.

¶7        … Prouse is clear that “except in those situations in which there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” [5] Contrary to Prouse, the court of appeals decision enables law enforcement officers to stop any vehicle to verify the registration solely because the vehicle is displaying temporary license plates as set forth in the statutes [6] and administrative rules [7] of the state. [8]


 [5]  Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663 (1979).For courts reaching the same conclusion as the State, see, e.g., United States v. Wilson, 205 F.3d 720, 724 (4th Cir. 2000) (“The Fourth Amendment does not allow a policeman to stop a car just because it has temporary tags.”); State v. Childs, 495 N.W.2d 475, 482 (Neb. 1993) (“We cannot accept that every motorist who operates a vehicle displaying In Transit decals waives the protection against an unconstitutional stop and invalid search and seizure as a consequence of the stop.”); State v. Butler, 539 S.E.2d 414, 416 (S.C. 2000) (“[T]he mere presence of a temporary tag on the back of a car, without more, is insufficient to provide a reasonable suspicion that the driver is violating registration or insurance laws or that the driver is otherwise involved in criminal activity.”); People v. Nabong, 9 Cal. Reptr. 3d 854, 855 (Cal. App. Div. Super. Ct. 2004) (stop invalid because no particularized belief that car not validly registered when car had a temporary registration sticker, even though in the officer’s experience over half of the stickers are invalid); Bius v. State, 563 S.E.2d 527, 529 (Ga. Ct. App. 2002) (“We find that stopping a car with a drive-out tag solely to ascertain whether the driver was complying with our vehicle registration laws is also not authorized.”).

 [6]   Wis.  Stat. § 341.15 (2003-04).

 [7]   Wis. Admin. Code § Trans. 132.04 (1998).

 [8]  The State’s concession adheres to Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385 (1997), which overturned State v. Richards, 201 Wis.  2d 845, 549 N.W.2d 218 (1996).  The United States Supreme Court admonished this court against a per se blanket rule inferring that exigent circumstances are always present in the execution of search warrants involving felonious drug delivery, even when the testimony was that the officers’ experience shows that many drug sellers have weapons.

Also see State v. Johnson, 2006 ND 248 (temporary registration sticker valid for 30 days; mere display doesn’t justify stop, but additional facts, such as faded nature of sticker, would); People v. Hernandez, Cal SCt No. S150038, 12/11/08 (“An officer who sees a vehicle displaying a temporary operating permit in lieu of license plates may not stop the vehicle simply because he or she believes that such permits are often forged or otherwise invalid.” Lord cited with approval.).The court of appeals misapplied State v. Griffin, 183 Wis.2d 327, 515 N.W.2d 535 (Ct. App. 1994), which held that failing to display any plate is a valid basis for a stop, notwithstanding that the car is validly registered. That holding was subsequently summarized by State v. Christopher Gammons, 2001 WI App 36, in the following terms:

¶7        Gammons first argues that, because the vehicle bore a temporary license sticker, Fahrney lacked a reasonable suspicion to stop it. We disagree. In State v. Griffin, 183 Wis. 2d 327, 329, 515 N.W.2d 535 (Ct. App. 1994), we held that “the absence of a registration plate, and reasonable inferences that can be drawn from that fact, constitute[] reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigatory stop of a motor vehicle.” InGriffin, the defendant’s vehicle bore a “license applied for” sign. Id. at 329-30. We reasoned that, without stopping the vehicle, the officers in Griffin had no way of knowing whether the defendant was in violation of vehicle registration laws. Id. at 333-34.

Does Griffin remain good law? Certainly, it is distinguishable on the facts; Griffin itself stresses the absence of a temporary plate, 183 Wis. 2d at 333-34: “The van did not display temporary plates containing identifying information and an expiration date. Thus, unless the officers stopped the vehicle, they had no way of determining whether Griffin had been operating his vehicle without permanent registration plates for six days or for a year.” The supreme court suggested, without quite holding, the viability of this rule, in State v. Roosevelt Williams, 2001 WI 21, ¶45 n. 21:

The absence of license plates alone can reasonably justify a stop because, without investigation, the police are unable to determine whether the vehicle is stolen or otherwise properly registered. See State v. Griffin, 183 Wis.  2d 327, 329, 515 N.W.2d 535 (Ct. App. 1994); see also Wis. Stat. § 341.04 (prohibits operation of a motor vehicle without registration or pending application for registration); § 341.15(3) (requires display of registration plates).

And yet, there may be an argument that a “per se blanket rule” justifying a stop is no more permissible for the lawful omission of a temporary plate than for its display. It doesn’t appear, that is, that Griffin has been reconsidered in light of Richards.

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