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Your Rocky Mountain High License Plate Isn't Enough to Support a Search

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 09, 2016 7:00 AM

The Rocky Mountain High was popularized long before Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. After all, what is the Centennial State if not the perfect place for stoners, snowboarders, and fast food chains?

But Colorado's pot-friendly status doesn't justify pulling over out-of-state drivers with Colorado plates, the Tenth Circuit ruled recently, throwing out two Kansas Highway Patrol officers' claims of qualified immunity after they cited Colorado plates as a reason for stopping drivers.

Just Passing Through

In 2011, Kansas Officers Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis stopped Peter Vasquez as he was driving through Wabaunsee County, Kansas, because they could not read his temporary tag. They then detained Vasquez, who was heading to Maryland from Colorado, and brought out a drug sniffing dog.

To justify detaining Vasquez after the initial stop, officers noted that he had insurance for newer cars, that he seemed nervous, and that he was coming from Colorado, a state which had legalized medical marijuana. (It would take another year for Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana as well.)

Half the Nation's Population

The officers found nothing illegal in Vasquez's car, but they did find themselves facing a section 1983 suit shortly after. The officers claimed qualified immunity and said that Vasquez's license plate justified extending the length of seizure.

The Tenth disagreed. Colorado, alone, is not a supportable justification for someone's search and seizure:

As we have said previously, "that the defendant[] [was] traveling from a drug source city--or . . . a drug source state -- does little to add to the overall calculus of suspicion." Such a factor is "so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing." Moreover, our fellow circuits have concluded the state of residence of a detained motorist is an "extremely weak factor, at best" in the reasonable suspicion calculus because "interstate motorists have a better than equal chance of traveling from a source state to a demand state."

Twenty-five states have legalized medical marijuana, the Tenth noted. The officer's justification would allow police to stop and search more than half the nation's citizens. "It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence," the court concluded.

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