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No, Not Every Car From Colorado Is Smuggling Pot

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use a few years ago and neighbors of the Rocky Mountain State lost their collective minds. Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado, hoping the Supreme Court would clamp down on the state's new pot laws. And apparently Kansas cops have just been pulling over every car with Colorado plates, claiming that just having license plates from a weed-legal state was grounds for detention and search.

But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals isn't buying it, nor was it buying two Kansas Highway Patrol officers' claims of immunity for calling drug-sniffing dogs to a traffic stop, just because the driver had Colorado plates.

Where You From?

Kansas Patrolmen Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis pulled over Peter Vasquez in 2011 (back when Colorado was just a medical marijuana state), ostensibly because they couldn't read the temporary tag taped inside his tinted rear window. Instead of merely issuing Vasquez a warning for the obscured tag, Jimerson and Lewis, after learning Vasquez was driving from Colorado to Maryland, requested a drug dog to search the vehicle. The search turned up nothing.

Vasquez sued the officers, claiming they violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Jimerson and Lewis defended their actions, claiming that, among other things, "Vasquez was a citizen of Colorado, driving alone on Interstate 70 from Colorado through Kansas." A district court was convinced, and granted the officers immunity.

The Fourth Amendment, Gone to Pot

The Tenth Circuit was less than impressed with that line of reasoning:

As we have said previously, "that the defendant[] [was] traveling from a drug source city--or . . . a drug source state -- does little to add to the overall calculus of suspicion." Such a factor is "so broad as to be indicative of almost nothing." Moreover, our fellow circuits have concluded the state of residence of a detained motorist is an "extremely weak factor, at best" in the reasonable suspicion calculus because "interstate motorists have a better than equal chance of traveling from a source state to a demand state."

The judges reversed the district court's ruling, and stripped the officers of their qualified immunity, allowing Vasquez's case to proceed. But they weren't quite done. In some language that could prove critical for citizens, officers, and courts outside the Tenth Circuit's jurisdiction (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming) the court noted the ridiculous results that could flow from the officers' arguments:

...Currently, twenty-five states permit marijuana use for medical purposes, with Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C. permitting some recreational use under state law. Thus, the Officer's reasoning would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country. It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence, and thus any fact that would inculpate every resident of a state cannot support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, it is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate.

So there you have it, cops: you're going to have to do a little bit better than a pot-friendly-state license plate if you want to justify a drug dog search.

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