Vehicle Stop Following License Plate Check Does Not Require Suspicion of Wrongdoing

by | May 29, 2017

People v. Bushey, 2017 WL 1712385 (N.Y. App. 2017)

Andrew Bushey’s bad day began with a collection of unpaid parking tickets. His car registration was suspended due to outstanding parking citations. An officer saw Bushey driving down the road, but did not observe any traffic violation. The officer performed a license plate check on his mobile data terminal.

Learning that the vehicle registration was suspended, the officer stopped Bushey. The officer checked Bushey’s driver license status and learned that it, too, was suspended. As the officer spoke with Bushey, he saw signs of impairment. Ultimately, he arrested Bushey for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended driver license and a suspended registration. If only he’d paid the parking fines.

The officer who stopped Bushey was looking at the license plate to look beyond the license plate.

Bushey challenged the lawfulness of the license plate check. In affirming the lower court, the Court of Appeals added New York to the long list of state and federal courts that have approved stops following checks of vehicle registrations without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

For example, courts have upheld:

  • Stops when an officer runs a registration check and learns that the registered owner has a suspended license. See State v. Reno (840 A.2d 786 (N.H. 2003)); State v. Halvorson (997 P.2d 751 (Mt. 2000)).
  • Stops when an officer recognizes a driver as having a suspended driver’s license. See United States v. Hope (906 F.2d 254 (7th Cir. 1990)), where the officer knew that the license suspended as of one week prior to the stop; United States v. Sandridge (385 F.3d 1032 (6th Cir. 2004)), where the officer knew that the license was suspended 22 days before the stop.
  • Stops based on running a license plate check and learning that an arrest warrant has been issued for the registered owner, when the driver reasonably could be the registered owner. See State v. Penfield (22 P.3d 293 (Wash. 2001)) in which the court ruled the stop must terminate when the driver is found not to be the registered owner; State v. Oshkeshequoam (503 N.W.2d 23 (Wis. App. 1993)).

The officer who stopped Bushey was looking at the license plate to look beyond the license plate. The court agreed that the officer’s tactic was entirely legal because there is no expectation of privacy in a license plate on a car on a public road—or in the information contained on the registration record.

Q&A: Common issues arising from traffic stops

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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