Officer Lacked Reasonable Suspicion to Stop a Car Obeying all Traffic Laws, but Which Was a Different Color Than Indicated in the Vehicle’s Registration Information

Seventh Circuit Criminal Case Summaries: Search and Seizure - Reasonable Suspicion

United States v. Uribe, 709 F.3d 646 (7th Cir. 2013). Upon interlocutory appeal by the government of the district court’s grant of a motion to suppress evidence, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The following facts were present before the officer stopped the defendant’s car: “Early one morning, Jesus Uribe was driving along Interstate 70 in Indiana. Apparently, he was not speeding or driving too slowly, weaving recklessly across lanes, crossing the dividing line, or giving any indication that he was intoxicated. Nor is there evidence that Uribe’s vehicle, a blue Nissan Altima with Utah plates, was in violation of any of Indiana’s numerous vehicle requirements—no malfunctioning brake lights, improperly tinted window, visibly altered muffler, or expired license plate. Only one aspect of Uribe’s travel was interesting: the blue Nissan he was driving had a registration number that traced back to a white Nissan. Although this color discrepancy alone is not unlawful either in Indiana, where Uribe was driving, or in Utah, where the car was registered, the deputy following Uribe’s car initiated a traffic stop “to check for registration compliance.” That stop led to a search of the vehicle, nearly a pound of heroin, and a federal indictment.” The district court and the Court of Appeals held that these facts did not support reasonable suspicion to stop the car. The only articulable fact for stopping the vehicle was the color discrepancy, but, as a matter of first impression in any federal court, the court held that a discrepancy between the observed color of a car and the color listed on its registration alone insufficient to give rise to reasonable suspicion. Although other circuits have held that it can be considered as a factor among many, no court has ever held that this fact alone is sufficient. The government tried to argue that the time of the stop—2:00 am—also supported a finding of reasonable suspicion, but the court of appeals noted that nothing there was nothing suspicious about an outof-state care travelling on an interstate highway at night. NOTE: In addition to finding for the first time that a lawful discrepancy in color between a car and its registration information alone does not support a stop based upon reasonable suspicion, the court also rejects the absurd argument that driving on an interstate highway at night is somehow suspicious. Perhaps in the future this case could be cited to fend off the equally, but more readily acceptable to the courts, argument that somehow driving in a “high crime area”—aka almost anywhere in a city—is somehow suspicious as well.

In United States v. Smith, 697 F.3d 625 (7th Cir. 2012), the defendants were convicted after a jury trial of bank robbery, 924(c), and 922(g) offenses. They challenged the denial of a motion to suppress, several evidentiary rulings, and their sentences on appeal. First, the defendant argued that evidence recovered from the car he was driving when stopped and arrested by police should have been suppressed. The police attempted to stop the defendant's car based upon information that the car was involved with the bank robbery. When the police attempted to stop the car, the defendant sped away, eventually crashing his car. The court held that the car was permissibly searched for two reasons. First, pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Arizona v. Gant, the “[p]olice may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” Here, the defendant was properly arrested and there was reason to believe that the car contained evidence related to the bank robbery. Secondly, given that the police had to tow the damaged car away, any evidence would also have been properly discovered as part of an inventory search. The co-defendant in the case also argued that he was arrested without probable cause. Specifically, when the defendant's car initially stopped prior to the police chase, the co-defendant exited the car. Police then drewtheir weapons and, when the car sped office, handcuffed the defendant for 10 minutes until other officers could arrive with photographs of the bank robbers to confirm that the co-defendant was one of the robbers. The court held that this initial seizure was merely a Terry stop for which the police had sufficient reasonable suspicion. Officers conducting an investigatory stop may approach with guns drawn and may handcuff a suspect without transforming an investigatory stop into an arrest. Here, it was entirely reasonable for officers to approach the car with guns drawn because they had been directed to consider the bank robbers “armed and dangerous” and because they knew the bank robbery had involved a gun. Similarly, it was entirely reasonable to use handcuffs to securely detain the co-defendant during the brief ten minutes when the officer was left alone on a public street street—both to protect himself and the public at large.