Wednesday, December 26, 2007
C.A. Rejects Traffic Stop Because Officer Ignored Temporary License Tag
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A police officer who testified that he stopped a vehicle because it had an expired license tag, and that he didn’t notice a valid, temporary tag because he wasn’t looking for one, lacked the reasonable suspicion required to validate the stop, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Two overturned Richard Dean’s conviction on charges of possession of cocaine, furnishing cocaine, possession of cocaine base for sale, possession of an assault weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon. Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Leslie G. Landau sentenced Dean to three years, eight months in prison after he entered a negotiated plea of no contest.
Dean entered the plea after Landau denied his motion to suppress evidence obtained in a search of his minivan by Officer David Hall of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. Hall was on patrol as a member of a special narcotics unit on Oct. 21, 2005 when he stopped Dean’s minivan on West Pass Road in Bay Point.
Hall testified at the suppression hearing that his partner called his attention to the expired registration tag, and that he subsequently noticed it and initiated the stop. Dean’s attorney then asked him if a red sticker, about four inches by four inches, with an “11” on it, was “affixed kind of in the middle of the rear window, a little to the left.”
Hall said it was “possible,” but he did not recall one way or the other. He went on to testify that he knew that such a sticker would have been a temporary registration, which allows a motorist to operate the vehicle for 30 days while addressing whatever issues have prevented the issuance of an annual tag.
The officer added that he would have made the stop anyway if he had seen the sticker after he flashed his lights and pulled the vehicle over.
Hall acknowledged that after pulling over the minivan, he recognized Dean as the subject of a drug investigation, and that he had executed a search warrant at Dean’s house a few months earlier. He asked Dean if he could search him, he testified, and Dean responded with a gesture that Hall took to mean that he had permission to search.
The search resulted in the discovery of some marijuana and more than 30 baggies of cocaine. Hall then obtained a warrant to search Dean’s house later in the day, resulting in the discovery of more contraband.
A Department of Motor Vehicles representative testified that a temporary sticker had been issued for the vehicle Hall was driving because the registration fee had been paid but a smog certificate had not been obtained. Dean’s wife testified that the sticker, which was introduced into evidence, was on the car and clearly visible at the time of the stop, and the owner of the tow yard to which the vehicle was taken after Dean’s arrest said that he took the sticker off and gave it to defense counsel in response to a subpoena.
Landau found that while the sticker was probably affixed to the vehicle in a proper location, the officers could have overlooked it because the area of the window where it was affixed was tinted and dirty. He questioned the credibility of Dean and his wife, and ruled the search was valid because the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion and by consent.
But Justice James Lambden, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the motion to suppress should have been granted. Even accepting the trial judge’s findings regarding credibility, the justice said, ”the prosecution failed to meet its burden of proving a reasonable suspicion existed for stopping the minivan in light of Hall’s testimony indicating his indifference about the minivan’s possible display of a temporary operating permit and the lack of evidence that he looked for one before initiating the stop.”
The motivation behind the stop is irrelevant, the jurist elaborated, because the officer’s actions must be judged under an objective standard.
Since Hall admitted that he would have known what the sticker was if he saw one; that he made no effort to determine whether there was such a sticker, and that he would have stopped the vehicle anyway—and in the absence of evidence of some unusual circumstance, such as that the officer would have had to endanger his own safety in order to look for the sticker—“Hall needed to look for a temporary operating permit as he followed the minivan in order to be able to form a reasonable suspicion that the minivan was not properly registered,” the justice explained.
Lambden cautioned that the ruling was based on the circumstances known to Hall at the time, and that the court was not imposing a generalized duty on officers to look for a temporary operating permit before stopping a vehicle with expired registration tabs.
The case is People v. Dean, 07 S.O.S. 7541.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company