State’s Lax Marijuana Laws Don’t Justify Stop in Neighboring State

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Vasquez v. Lewis, (10th Cir. 2016)

Officers saw Vasquez driving a car with a temporary registration card pasted inside a tinted window. They stopped him and discovered that he was from Colorado. Vasquez said that he was headed to Maryland. He had blankets in the front and rear seats; a blanket covered a large object in the rear seat.

Officers also observed that Vasquez was driving alone late at night on I-70, “a known drug corridor,” and his point of origin, Aurora, Colo., is “a drug source area.” Vasquez was also driving an older car, despite having insurance for a newer one. There were fresh fingerprints on his trunk and Vasquez seemed nervous. Based on these observations, the officers detained Vasquez and called for a drug detection dog team.

The eventual search produced no contraband, and Vasquez was released. He sued the officers, alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable seizure. The appellate court determined that the officers violated Vasquez’s constitutional rights and that clearly established law put the officers on notice that their detention lacked reasonable suspicion.

In particular, the court held that the fact that Vasquez was traveling from a state with notoriously generous drug laws cannot justify detaining and searching drivers coming from that state: “It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence.” Contributing to the court’s argument was the fact that nearly half of the 50 states now allow some medicinal marijuana use and several allow recreational marijuana use. One judge dissented, calling the decision to detain a “close call.” The dissent would have extended qualified immunity to the officers.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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