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The 4th Amendment: Still Alive and Kicking in the 8th

By Cristina Yu, Esq. on April 23, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals breathed a bit of life into our republic on April 19 as it decided in a divided opinion, of course that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure is still with us despite the imminent threat of ... money?

In 2010, Carlos Martins was driving his pickup just west of Omaha, Nebraska when Deputy David Wintle pulled him over because his license plate was "obstructed" in violation of Nebraska Revised Statute § 60-399(2). And by "obstructed," Wintle means that he had to get within 100 feet of it to be able to read the very bottom, where it said "Utah." It's undisputed that the rest of the license plate was completely clear.

After pulling Martin over, the Deputy found $45,000 in the pickup. A drug dog, naturally, alerted on the cash, and it was seized.

The Eighth Circuit ruled that the traffic stop violated the Fourth because there was no probable cause to pull Martins over. There was no probable cause to pull Martins over for the plate obstruction because, basically, it wasn't obstructed. The deputy was able to recognize that Martins' pickup had Utah plates. The court noted that under the lower court's interpretation of § 60-399(2), an "officer could pull over a motorist just because the motorist's vehicle is, for example, a great distance in front of the officer, at a sharp angle to the officer, or positioned between the officer and the sun on a bright day."

The court found the traffic stop violated Martins's Fourth Amendment rights and that any evidence obtained as a result should have been suppressed.

Chief Judge Riley dissented, saying that more than half of the four letters that comprise the word "Utah" could not be read and that the license plate was therefore obstructed. It should be remembered that Nebraska and Utah are right next to each other.

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