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5/24/2016
North Carolina Court: Police Must Respect Registration Grace Period
A car with an expired registration sticker may be legally driven, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled.

North Carolina license plate
Greensboro, North Carolina Police Detective Marcus R. McPhatter was staking out a gas station convenience store on the morning of October 6, 2014 when he saw a couple dropped off by a bus walk inside. The man briefly checked out McPhatter's unmarked car before walking back into the store. Once a burgundy Buick rolled in to a parking spot, the man and woman left the store, got in the car, and drove away.

This was enough evidence for Detective McPhatter to conclude that the trio were up to no good. So he called for another officer in a marked cruiser to pull over the Buick, noticing the license plate had a September 2014 set of registration stickers, and they were in the first week of October. Detective M.P. O'Hal ran the plate and found it was registered to Sandy Keith Baskins. The detective said that the registration was expired. Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reminded the detectives and a lower court judge that state law provides a two-week grace period for vehicle registrations.

"This is what I saw on my -- I call it a visual MCT or my computer, which was with me that day of the stop," Detective O'Hal explained during the trial. "And it shows that the customer ID's name or driver's license number, the name of the person that the vehicle is registered to, and it says 'plate status expired.' And it says that it was issued on 9-26-2013 and showed a status of being expired."

What the detective omitted was that the same information screen showed that the plate was still valid. North Carolina requires safety and, in some counties, emissions inspections before a vehicle can be registered. Many motorists wait until the last day of the month to get the inspections done, and it can take two weeks for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to mail a sticker. State law recognizes this reality.

"As indicated in the information provided by DMV, the Buick's registration, though technically expired, was still valid on 6 October 2014, and would remain valid through 15 October 2014," Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.

At the time of the traffic stop, the legal status of the registration was an afterthought for the detectives. They did not even check the vehicle's registration card. Instead, it had quickly become clear that Detective McPhatter's hunch was correct. Baskins, his brother and the woman were transporting six ounces of heroin. They were tried and convicted of drug trafficking, but those convictions may not stick because there was no reason to believe that these individuals were doing anything wrong at the time of the traffic stop.

"As far as the registration was concerned, defendant was operating the Buick lawfully, and Detective O'Hal was provided confirmation of this fact in the information he requested and received from DMV," Judge McGee wrote.

Rather than let the individuals go free, however, the appellate court sent the case back to the superior court judge to resolve conflicting testimony from the detectives to see if there was any reasonable suspicion to pull over the Buick in the first place.

A copy of the ruling is available in a 130k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File North Carolina v. Baskins (Court of Appeals, State of North Carolina, 5/17/2016)



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