7/9/2014Florida Supreme Court Rejects Traffic Stop Based On Color
Drivers in Florida may no longer be stopped based solely on the color of their car, state Supreme Court rules.
Florida drivers may not be pulled over based solely on the color of their cars, the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. In a 5 to 2 decision, the justices resolved a split among the lower courts after considering the June 22, 2010 traffic stop of Kerrick Van Teamer, whose bright green Chevrolet caught the eye of an Escambia County deputy sheriff who ran the plates and noticed the database entry said the car should be blue.
When the deputy pulled Teamer over, Teamer explained that the car had been recently painted. This was sufficient, but the deputy smelled marijuana and searched the vehicle, which resulted in Teamer's arrest on drug charges. Teamer argued the stop was unlawful, while prosecutors insisted the discrepancy in the registered color was a sufficient reason to conduct an investigatory traffic stop to check whether the vehicle might be stolen and using swapped license plates.
The high court majority weighed whether the deputy had a well-founded suspicion of criminal activity that justified the stop, as defined by the 1968 US Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio.
"Turning to the instant case, the sole basis here for the investigatory stop is an observation of one completely noncriminal factor, not several incidents of innocent activity combining under a totality of the circumstances to arouse a reasonable suspicion -- as was the case in Terry," Justice Peggy A. Quince wrote for the majority. "The discrepancy between the vehicle registration and the color the deputy observed does present an ambiguous situation, and the Supreme Court has recognized that an officer can detain an individual to resolve an ambiguity regarding suspicious yet lawful or innocent conduct."
The majority went on to say that the difference in color is not unusual enough to generate suspicion of criminal activity.
"The law allows officers to draw rational inferences, but to find reasonable suspicion based on this single noncriminal factor would be to license investigatory stops on nothing more than an officer's hunch," Justice Quince wrote. "Doing so would be akin to finding reasonable suspicion for an officer to stop an individual for walking in a sparsely occupied area after midnight simply because that officer testified that, in his experience, people who walk in such areas after midnight tend to commit robberies."
The majority decided that the use of the exclusionary rule to deter police from conducting stops based on color was the appropriate remedy. It reversed the trial court's conviction and ordered Teamer discharged.
In his dissent, Justice Charles T. Canady insisted that disallowing stops based on a "single noncriminal factor" creates a new rule that goes beyond the US Supreme Court's guidance on the Fourth Amendment.
A copy of the decision is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.