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Can the police search my car because of it's color?

Answer:

No, they cannot police search your car because of it's color. The Florida Supreme Court recently decided State v. Teamer (July 3, 2014), in which a person was charged with drug trafficking and possession after the vehicle he was driving was stopped by a deputy sheriff who noticed an inconsistency between the actual color of the vehicle Mr. Teamer was driving and the color indicated on the vehicle's registration. How would a cop know this, you might ask, from his police cruiser? The police are told that, when sitting in traffic, or watching a vehicle stopped at a light, for example, to use their on-board computers to run random license plates to check if there are any outstanding warrants or other discrepancies. As a Jacksonville criminal lawyer, I can tell you that the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office does this routinely.

The idea behind this policy is that people driving around with improper or outdated tags, lapsed insurance or other minor problems are more likely to have drugs or other contraband in their vehicles. Mr. Teamer was just such a person. He was observed driving a bright green Chevrolet. When the deputy ran Teamer's license plate, he learned that the vehicle was registered as a blue Chevrolet. Based only on the color inconsistency, the cop pulled the car over to conduct a traffic stop. The cop was told that the car was recently painted, explaining the inconsistency. However, during the stop the deputy noticed "a strong smell of marijuana" and decided to search the vehicle. Marijuana, crack cocaine and about $1,100. in cash was recovered from Teamer.

Teamer's lawyer filed a motion to suppress the results of the stop as products of an unlawful, warantless search. The trial court denied the motion to suppress (as they almost always do), stating that the car was pulled over only for an "investigatory stop" and that the odor of marijuana that the officer smelled during the stop gave him probable cause to conduct a search. After a jury trial, Teamer was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Teamer appealed.

The high court of Florida found that the stop of his car was a violation of Teamer's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. It noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has "held that the police can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion...that criminal activity may be afoot, even if the officer lacks probable cause". A reasonable suspicion must be more than a hunch. Here, the government conceded that the failure to update a vehicle registration to reflect a new color is not a violation of Florida law. Thus, the sole basis for the stop (a different color car) was a non-criminal factor. The color discrepancy was not "inherently suspicious" or "unusual enough" or so "out of the ordinary" as to provide the officer with a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The court noted that if there were some other factor, other than just the changed color of the car, that might have given the officer reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop. But with nothing more, it just wasn't enough. The court set Teamer free.

Lesson Learned:

When I first started reading this decision, I initially thought that it was reasonable for the police to make an investigative stop of a car with a discrepancy like this one. But just like the cop in this case, I was wrong. The courts are constantly evolving , re-defining and re-working the Fourth Amendment's meaning of the term "unreasonable search and seizure". As I've written in the past, no matter what, never give your consent to a search of your self, your car or your home. The courts, with the aid of a good lawyer, just might surprise you.

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