Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 12, 2008


Page 1


Officer May Not Stop Car Solely Due to Temporary Plates—S.C.




The fact that a motor vehicle has temporary plates, which an officer believes might be forged or otherwise invalid, is insufficient to justify a traffic stop, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a unanimous decision, the justices affirmed a Third District Court of Appeal ruling throwing out a Sacramento Superior Court  conviction on charges of obstructing an officer, resisting arrest, being under the influence of methamphetamine, and driving while drugged.

While police may draw on their experience and training in carrying out their duties, they “are not entitled to rely on mere hunches,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote.

The beneficiary of the decision, George Hernandez, was stopped by a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy in 2005. Deputy Anthony Paonessa testified at the suppression hearing that Hernandez was driving a pickup truck with no plates, but with a temporary operating permit visible in the rear window.

The deputy acknowledged that the permit looked legitimate, and that he had no other reason to stop the vehicle. In his experience, Paonessa testified, such permits are “very often” forged, placed on other vehicles, or issued for a different vehicle.

Motorist ‘Appeared Nervous’

After he stopped the vehicle and asked Hernandez for his license, registration, and proof of insurance, he said, the motorist “appeared nervous” and his hands “were sharking very badly.” He acknowledged that he was on probation, although he did not say what for, and repeatedly refused to get out of the truck, the deputy testified.

Eventually, Paonessa said, he sprayed Hernandez with pepper spray and he and his partner pulled the defendant from the truck and handcuffed him.

Judge Michael Savage denied the motion to suppress, and Hernandez was later found guilty by a jury.

 The high court, however, agreed with the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment and that the deputy therefore had no legal authority to make an arrest.

“The failure here is that, although Deputy Paonessa knew that some people driving with a temporary permit may be violating the law, he could point to no articulable facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Hernandez, in particular, may have been acting illegally,” Corrigan wrote for the court.

Expired Registration Distinguished

The justice distinguished People v. Saunders (2006) 38 Cal.4th 1129, which held that where a truck had no front plate and expired registration tabs, it was reasonable to stop the vehicle to verify whether it was lawfully registered, even though a current temporary permit was displayed in the rear window.

“Without a traffic stop the officer could not determine whether the temporary operating permit applied only to the expired registration or to the missing license plate as well,” Corrigan explained. In contrast, since Hernandez’s vehicle had no plates at all, there was no ambiguity that his temporary permit complied with the law.

The justice rejected the argument that because Hernandez’s vehicle was older, it was reasonable for the deputy to assume that it had been issued permanent plates. Corrigan noted that there was no evidence of the age of the vehicle, and that the Vehicle Code expressly permits the operation of a vehicle without plates if a valid temporary permit is displayed.

In a companion case, however, the court unanimously held that an officer had reasonable cause to stop a vehicle from behind where it had no plates and no temporary permit in the rear window and the officer could not see that there was a permit in the front window.

The case involved a juvenile in Orange County, identified as Raymond C., who was placed on probation for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The arresting officer, Corrigan said, was not required to drive around the vehicle in order to determine whether it had a temporary permit in front. This would have been “potentially dangerous,” the justice wrote, and in any event was not required, since an officer is not “required to eliminate all innocent explanations that might account for the facts supporting a particularized suspicion.”

The cases are People v. Hernandez, 08 S.O.S. 6609, and In re Raymond C., 08 S.O.S. 6611.


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