12/5/2013Georgia Court Invalidates Search Over A Misplaced License Decal
The full Georgia Court of Appeals rejects the search of a vehicle over a license plate decal on the wrong side of the plate.
The Georgia Court of Appeals divided 3 to 2 last month on the question of whether police were wrong to search a motorist merely because he appeared nervous and had his license plate decal on the wrong corner of the plate. On July 24, 2009, a patrolman stopped James Heard hoping to issue a ticket for a tag violation when he did not see a 2009 registration sticker. The officer had also been on the lookout for the type of Chevy S-10 truck Heard was driving.
Stopped on the side of the road, Heard explained his registration was up to date and handed over proof, along with his license and insurance card. In the course of the stop, two other officers arrived and surrounded the pickup truck. The patrolman noted that Heard appeared nervous, then checked and confirmed that there was a license decal on the left side of the license plate instead of the right side. At this point, the officer testified in court that his investigation of the traffic violation had ended, but the officer decided to ask consent to search the pickup truck. Heard said no. Heard then understood the officer to order him out of the vehicle, and he was frisked for weapons. He was asked about a search once again, and after he consented the officers found six pieces of crack cocaine.
Heard moved to throw out the evidence obtained by the search on the grounds that the officer was conducting an drug investigation after the legitimate reason for the traffic stop had concluded. The appellate majority agreed that the officer had no right to ask for consent to search in the first place.
"In fact, the officer could lawfully verify the registration, driver's license and insurance information, and check for outstanding warrants; but any subsequent interrogation or request for consent had to be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," Chief Judge Herbert E. Phipps wrote for the majority.
The majority found an unsubstantiated anonymous tip and unease while being surrounded by cops provided no articulable cause to think something criminal was going on.
"Nervousness is not sufficient to justify an investigative detention," Judge Phipps wrote. "Even when we consider together the lookout information and Heard's nervousness, we cannot conclude that the officer was aware of circumstances sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion that Heard was involved in criminal activity other than the suspected traffic violation."
Because the stop was illegally prolonged, the evidence was suppressed. A copy of the decision is available in a PDF file at the source link below.