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Appeals court: Police in other states can’t search cars just because they have Colorado plates

Colorado license plate over marijuana

A federal appeals court has ruled that two Kansas police officers violated a Colorado man’s constitutional rights when they searched his vehicle because it had license plates from a state that allows marijuana.

“Police officers cannot stop and search vehicles belonging to out-of-state motorists simply because of where they are registered, including states where marijuana use is legal,” the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated in the ruling issued Tuesday.

Peter Vasquez was pulled over on Interstate 70 in December 2011.

According to court documents, the officers pulled Vasquez over because they couldn’t read the temporary tag taped inside the tinted rear window.

When they contacted Vasquez, the officers noticed blankets in the backseat of the car and suspected something large was hidden under the blankets, court documents stated.

Vaquez told the officers he was originally from Colorado but had just moved to Maryland and was transporting the last of his belongings.

The officers argued that they were justified in searching his vehicle because:

  • Vasquez was driving alone at night
  • I-70 is a “known drug corridor”
  • Colorado is a “drug source area”
  • Items in the backseat were obscured from view
  • Vasquez had a blanket and pillow in the car
  • Vasquez was driving an older car, despite having insurance for a newer car
  • There were fresh fingerprints on his trunk
  • Vasquez seemed nervous

Documents show the officers asked Vasquez for permission to search the car and he refused. The officers called for a trained drug dog. Subsequent searches of the car did not reveal anything illegal.

In the ruling issued Tuesday, the appeals court concluded that the officers’ reasoning would “justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country” and cited case law that determined such a factor is “so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing.”

“We cannot think of a scenario in which a combination of otherwise innocent factors becomes suspicious because the individual is from [a state with legal marijuana,]” the appeals court stated.

The decision means Vasquez can move forward with a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the officers for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. A lower court judge dismissed the case in 2014.