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Tenth Cir. Serves Reasonable Suspicion on Dangling License Plate

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

We read a lot of appellate search and seizure challenges, but rarely do we find those appeals accompanied by photographs. This case was a rare exception.

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Josiah Trinkle saw a pickup truck driving on the interstate with its license plate hanging on one side. Kansas law requires that a vehicle's license plate "shall at all times be securely fastened to the vehicle ... to prevent the plate from swinging," so Trooper Trinkle tailed the truck.

While following the truck, Trooper Trinkle thought that the truck’s brake light wasn’t working - also a violation of Kansas law. Trinkle pulled the truck over, issued a warning to the driver, Eusebio Lopez-Estrada, and asked if he could search the truck. Lopez-Estrada consented.

Trinkle found methamphetamine inside a toolbox, and Lopez-Estrada was charged with possession with intent to distribute.

Lopez-Estrada filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing that Trooper Trinkle did not have reasonable suspicion to pull him over because his license plate was securely fastened and his brake lights were functioning at the time of the stop. The district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Trinkle had reasonable suspicion to stop Lopez-Estrada.

Perhaps the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals felt that there weren’t enough visual aids on record in the appellate courts outside of the Federal Circuit, because the court included a photograph of the license plate in question in its opinion last week. While the photograph shows that the license plate is securely fastened on both sides, the left side appears to be secured by a wire or zip tie, which the court decided was sufficient to justify Trinkle’s belief that the license plate wasn’t securely fastened.

The court did not examine the reasonableness of Trinkle’s malfunctioning brake light claim because it found that Trinkle’s dangling license plate belief was reasonable.

Reading a search appeal is like watching a horror movie because the protagonist will always do whatever it is that you are begging him not to: “don’t go into the deserted house!” or “don’t consent to that search!” But drivers always do consent to searches and by the time the driver meets with an attorney, the damage has been done.

If you’re weighing the prospect of a prolonged search challenge against a generous offer from the prosecutor, keep in mind that the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals interprets reasonable suspicion liberally.

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