10/25/2019Ohio Supreme Court Approves Traffic Stops Based On Color
Ohio police can stop a black car if it is registered as a white vehicle under a state Supreme Court ruling.
The color of a car's paint can be enough to justify pulling over a driver who has done nothing wrong, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last week. The justices were considering a case triggered by an automated license plate reader on May 20, 2016. The device was scanning and recording all passing traffic when a black 2001 GMC SUV drove past in full compliance with all traffic laws.
Washington Court House Police Officer Jeffery Heinz looked at his screen, which pulled up all the personal information about the vehicle and its owner. He noticed the DMV registration showed the SUV being driven by Justin Hawkins was supposed to be white, not black. Thinking the car might be stolen, Officer Heinz ordered the driver to pull over.
At the side of the road, the officer checked the vehicle identification number and verified that the SUV was properly registered and not stolen. During the course of stop, however, it eventually came to light that Hawkins had a warrant out for his arrest. The question before the high court was not whether Hawkins was a criminal, but solely whether Officer Heinz was right to pull a car over simply because its color did not match what was found in the database. Six of the seven justices concluded that such stops are acceptable.
"The facts that the color discrepancy itself is not a crime and that there may be an innocent explanation for the discrepancy do not mean that the discrepancy may be disregarded in determining whether Heinz had reasonable suspicion," Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote for the court majority. "In this case, Heinz testified that in his experience, the color discrepancy could signify that the vehicle either was stolen or had an illegal license plate... Therefore, we hold that under the totality of the circumstances, Heinz met the reasonable-and-articulable-suspicion standard necessary to perform a lawful investigative traffic stop."
The majority gave the green light to other officers to pull over cars based on a color discrepancy, as long as the officer cites the belief that the vehicle may be stolen. Justice Michael P. Donnelly rejected that conclusion as unreasonable.
"In this case, it was within the realm of possibility that Hawkins stole a black 2001 GMC SUV, drove around until he found another 2001 GMC SUV (which happened to be white), stole the license plates from the white 2001 GMC SUV, and put those plates on the black 2001 GMC SUV," Justice Donnelly wrote in a dissenting opinion. "It was also quite possible that the vehicle was originally white but was painted black at some point in the previous 15 years.... Although it is unusual for a vehicle's color not to match the color listed on its registration, there is nothing in Hawkins's suppression hearing establishing that the drivers of such vehicles are not, by and large, innocent travelers. Thus, subjecting all such drivers to random investigatory seizures offends the Fourth Amendment's basic protections."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.