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Car’s color alone doesn’t support traffic stop

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In a matter of first impression in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and federal courts, the judges were asked to consider whether a discrepancy between the observed color of a car and the color listed on its registration alone gives rise to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Putnam County Sheriff’s Deputy Dwight Simmons stopped Jesus Uribe’s blue Nissan on I-70 around 2 a.m. solely because when running a check on Uribe’s Utah license plate, the registration indicated that it belonged to a white Nissan. Simmons believed the car may be stolen. When Simmons approached Uribe’s car, he noticed Uribe was nervous. Uribe gave permission to search the car, which turned up heroin.

Uribe wanted the drug suppressed, arguing the deputy had no reasonable suspicion to stop the car based on color alone. Indiana and Utah law don’t require a driver to amend his registration if he changes the color of his car. The government argued Simmons’ experience taught him that stolen cars are often repainted but did not provide testimony from Simmons or numbers to back up the argument.

The District Court granted Uribe’s motion, which the 7th Circuit affirmed in United States of America v. Jesus Uribe, 11-3590.  

Judge Ann Claire Williams pointed out that this issue is novel for the court. Other Circuit courts have considered a car’s color, but in conjunction with several other factors establishing reasonable suspicion. In this case, the government didn’t provide any evidence to tip the scales from a “mere hunch to something even approaching reasonable and articulable suspicion,” she wrote.

“Our review of the totality of the circumstances here leads us to conclude that no reasonable suspicion of vehicle theft attaches to a completely lawful color discrepancy in the absence of any evidence suggesting otherwise,” she continued.

The judges also rejected the government’s argument that Simmons could have believed that Uribe was in violation of an Indiana vehicle registration requirement, I.C. 9-18-2-27(a), which says a car required to be registered under this chapter may not be used on the highway if the vehicle displays a registration number belonging to another vehicle. But the government hasn’t shown that the statute applies in this situation, and the provision doesn’t apply to the Utah-registered vehicle Uribe was driving, the court held.

 

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