State v. Oryall, (Utah App. 2018)
An officer was parked on the side of the road checking license plates of passing cars. Jennifer Oryall drove past the officer, who checked her plate, discovered the car was registered to her, and recognized her name from a previous encounter. He then checked Oryall’s driver’s license status and found that it was suspended. The officer followed Oryall to a convenience store. When Oryall parked and got out of her car, the officer confirmed she was the same person with a suspended license. Once Oryall began driving again, the officer stopped her and found she had white powder in and around her nostrils, glossy eyes, constricted pupils, foam on her lips, muscle and eyelid tremors, and slurred speech.
The officer administered field sobriety tests and arrested Oryall, who admitted to consuming different illegal drugs before driving. Oryall asked the court to suppress all evidence from the stop, claiming she had an expectation of privacy in her vehicle and of her driver’s license information. She argued the state’s government records law conferred some measure of records privacy.
The court rejected her claim that the state records law protected her from random registration and driver’s license checks by a police officer. The court also disagreed that the state’s constitution barred the officer from checking license plates and driver’s licenses without suspicion.
Federal courts have previously considered whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits checks of vehicle registration and driver’s licenses without suspicion and have uniformly and consistently upheld random warrantless checks.
(See United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo, 827 F.3d 663 (7th Cir. 2016); United States v. Ellison, 462 F.3d 557 (6th Cir. 2006); Hallstein v. City of Hermosa Beach, 87 Fed. Appx. 17 (9th Cir. 2003)). State courts interpreting their respective state constitutions have reached the same result. (See State v. Richter, 765 A.2d 687 (N.H. 2000); People v. Bushey, 75 N.E.3d 1165 (N.Y. 2017); State v. Penfield, 22 P.3d 293 (Wash. 2001)). Courts have also upheld stops based on an officer recognizing the driver as having a suspended driver’s license. (See United States v. Hope, 906 F.2d 254 (7th Cir. 1990); United States v. Sandridge, 385 F.3d 1032 (6th Cir. 2004); State v. Decoteau, 681 N.W.2d 803 (N.D. 2004)).
From time to time, I hear from officers who have been shut down by ill-informed persons, including some prosecutors, unfamiliar with the solid legal foundation for checking license plates and investigating likely violations. Any chief or sheriff should be glad to have such intrepid and hard-working officers in their ranks. This case adds another nail in the coffin to the unfounded rumor that officers cannot look at the license plate and beyond to find criminal acts. In the case of Oryall, the officer’s stop was valid, therefore all of the drug evidence was admissible and Oryall’s conviction stands.