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California Supreme Court Protects Drivers with Temporary Tags
California Supreme Court ruling states police do not have discretion to pull over motorists because they have temporary license tags.

California temporary tagThe California Supreme Court on Thursday issued a ruling that protects motorists with temporary license tags from being pulled over for no reason. Each year, the state issues 2.4 million of these permits, each of which is valid for up to 90 days, primarily to motorists with a newly registered vehicle.

On January 25, 2005, George Lee Hernandez found himself pulled over simply because he had a temporary operating permit properly displayed in the rear window of his old, brown Toyota pickup truck. Sacramento County Sheriff's deputy Anthony Paonessa testified that since these paper permits were frequently forged, he had the right to pull Hernandez over.

When Paonessa asked Hernandez to show his driver's license, Hernandez became visibly nervous. Paonessa then asked Hernandez to step out of the pickup truck, and when he refused Paonessa doused him with pepper spray. Hernandez was later convicted of resisting arrest and driving under the influence of methamphetamine.

The high court's analysis examined the events that took place before the arrest, asking only whether the initial traffic stop was justified. State Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) argued that the stop was justified because it was unlikely that an old truck would need the temporary tags. The court disagreed sharply.

"The failure here is that, although Deputy Paonessa knew that some people driving with a temporary permit may be violating the law, he could point to no articulable facts supporting a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Hernandez, in particular, may have been acting illegally," Justice Corrigan wrote for the unanimous court. "To accept the attorney general's argument would be to depart from settled California and federal precedent requiring particularized suspicion. This we decline to do. Courts from other jurisdictions also seem uniformly to have concluded that permitting officers to stop any car with temporary permits would be to countenance the exercise of the unbridled discretion condemned in (the US Supreme Court decision) Delaware v. Prouse."

The court dismissed Brown's argument by pointing out that a motorist with an old car whose license plates are damaged or stolen would have a valid reason to use a permit. There is, however, less unanimity on the broader issue than the California court suggests. Earlier this year the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled that police have unbridled discretion to stop and search any motorist driving with valid temporary tags from another state (view case). In a companion ruling Thursday, the California Supreme Court also ruled that vehicles displaying a permit in the front window -- even though it is legal to do so -- can be stopped at will because a police officer may not be able to see it.

View the full decision in a 25k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: California v. Hernandez (Supreme Court of California, 12/11/2008)

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