1/15/2014Kentucky Appeals Court Questions Insurance Database Reliability
Kentucky Court of Appeals suggests insurance database may not be reliable enough to justify a traffic stop.
Insurance coverage databases may not be reliable enough to justify a traffic stop, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled on Friday. The decision, among the first to tackle the subject, could have a significant impact on attempts to use automated cameras to issue tickets for lapsed insurance.
The case began on November 18, 2010, when James Willoughby was driving his 1997 Jeep Cherokee on Dixie Highway in Kenton County, Kentucky. Kenton County Police Officer Scott Hardcorn entered the Jeep's license plate into his patrol car's computer to look up the vehicle information. The screen said, "verify proof of insurance" which Officer Hardcorn understood to mean the driver was uninsured.
"More times than not, that person has either lapsed in payment, so the insurance company canceled them or the registered owner of that vehicle canceled the insurance policy themself," the officer explained in court testimony.
More innocently, the same message would be displayed if an individual changed insurance companies and the motor vehicle department has not yet received notification of the switch. Smaller insurance companies are not required to provide notification to update the database. Nonetheless, Officer Hardcorn conducted a traffic stop based solely on the database report.
Willoughby was in fact properly insured, and while he searched for his insurance card, the officer used his flashlight to look into the vehicle. He saw a coffeemaker in the backseat. Officer Hardcorn then requested a check of whether Willoughby had made any recent cough medicine purchases. Twenty minutes later, a police sergeant arrived on the scene and said Willoughby had purchased cough medicine containing pseudoephedrine from the local Walmart earlier in the day.
Officer Hardcorn ordered Willoughby out of the Jeep and conducted a pat down search that uncovered two small bags of white powder that proved to be methamphetamine. The three-judge appellate panel believed the initial traffic stop might be unlawful because of the lack of confidence in the insurance coverage database known as AVIS. The panel ordered a lower court to revisit the database issue.
"While we could elect to make a sweeping decision as to the reasonableness of officers' reliance on the AVIS database, we are unwilling, without more information, to render a judgment which would profoundly affect both the individual's right to be left alone and law enforcement's ability to enforce the law," Judge Irv Maze wrote for the court. "Instead, we leave to the sound, and soon-to-be more informed, judgment of the trial court the determination of whether, under these facts, AVIS was sufficiently accurate and reliable so as to raise an objectively reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.... If the trial court answers the latter question in the negative, the trial court shall vacate Willoughby's conviction and sentence because they would then be based on evidence procured pursuant to an unlawful stop."
The court had no other problem with the search conducted on Willoughby or his vehicle.
A copy of the decision is available in a 170k PDF file at the source link below.