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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Arrest Started with Stop of Black SUV Registered as White SUV Was Constitutional

A police officer could lawfully stop and investigate an SUV whose paint color did not match the color listed on vehicle registration records because, based on his experience, he believed the vehicle or its license plates were stolen, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority ruled that Washington Court House police officer Jeffrey Heinz did not violate driver Justin Hawkins’ constitutional rights when he stopped the black 2001 GMC SUV that displayed a license plate that was registered to a white 2001 GMC SUV. Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that while having a color discrepancy between a vehicle and its registration is not a crime, Heinz’ experience with car thieves in the area switching license plates gave him the “reasonable, articulable” suspicion of criminal activity that justified stopping Hawkins.

Oral arguments in the case were heard at a special off-site Court session this April in Ashtabula County.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Justice Melody J. Stewart concurred in judgment only.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly dissented, writing that there was no evidence that Heinz had any personal experience or specialized training to support his belief that a color discrepancy alone was enough to make an investigatory stop, and that he did so on a “hunch,” which violated Hawkins’ right against unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Driver Acts Suspicious, Flees Scene
Heinz, a police officer for 14 years in the Fayette County city of Washington Court House, was completing a traffic stop at 3 a.m. when the license plate reader in his cruiser captured the image of a license plate with a Franklin County sticker of a passing vehicle. He requested that the license number be run through a computer database and was informed by a dispatcher that the license plate was registered to a white GMC SUV. Heinz looked in his rearview mirror and saw that the vehicle, a GMC SUV, was black.

Heinz located the vehicle and pulled Hawkins over, explaining the reason for the stop was that the plate did not match the color listed on the vehicle registration. Hawkins told Heinz he did not have any identification with him. While attempting to learn Hawkins’ personal information, the officer verified that the vehicle’s identification number matched the number registered with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV).

While Heinz could match the SUV and the plate, he could not verify Hawkins’ identity because Hawkins gave the officer two Social Security numbers that were not associated with the name Hawkins. Through the assistance of a dispatcher, Heinz learned that Hawkins did not have a valid driver’s license and had an outstanding warrant out of Delaware County for his arrest.

When Heinz informed Hawkins of the warrant, Hawkins sped away, which led to a chase. Hawkins crashed the vehicle, then fled on foot before being apprehended. After his arrest, the SUV was searched and two credits cards that were reported stolen were found in the glove compartment.

Driver Seeks to Throw Out Search
Hawkins was charged with two counts of receiving stolen property, and one count of failing to comply with a police order. He requested that the trial court suppress the evidence obtained during the traffic stop, arguing that Heinz lacked the required reasonable suspicion to make the stop and investigate him.

At the hearing, Heinz was the only person to testify. He stated that a mismatch between the color of a vehicle and the color reported on the registration could indicate a vehicle or its license plate had been stolen. He said car thieves drive around parking lots and find vehicles that match the ones they are driving, then steal the parked vehicle’s plates and put them on the stolen car to avoid detection. He said he had not personally encountered the situation but was aware of it occurring in the Washington Court House area.

The trial court denied the request to suppress the evidence, and a jury convicted Hawkins on all three counts, and he was sentenced to 36 months in prison.

Hawkins appealed the decision to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision not to suppress the evidence. Hawkins appealed the Twelfth District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, and the Twelfth District acknowledged its decision conflicted with a decision by the Fifth District Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court agreed to resolve the conflict between the two cases.

Court Examines Reason for Stop
The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches permits brief investigative stops when law enforcement has a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity,” the majority opinion stated.

Justice Kennedy explained the rule traces back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio decision. The high court in Terry found police have the authority to make a forcible stop of a person when the officer has “reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.”

Precisely defining “reasonable suspicion” is not possible, the opinion stated, but “depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers.” The level of suspicion required is less demanding than what is required for probable cause but has to be more than a “hunch.” It is determined by the “totality of the circumstances” as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable police officer who must react to events on the scene as they unfold. Police can draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the information available to them, the Court explained.

The opinion stated that reasonable suspicion “need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct,” and that under Terry, there is a risk that officers may stop innocent people.

Circumstances Made Search Reasonable
The opinion noted that Heinz’s suspicions were aroused because the entirety of the vehicle was a different color from the color indicated on the BMV records for the vehicle associated with the license plate captured by the reader. He testified that color discrepancy can signify a stolen vehicle or illegal license plates, and that based on his professional experience, he suspected Hawkins was engaged in criminal activity.

“Therefore, we hold under the totality of the circumstances, Heinz met the reasonable-and-articulable suspicion standard necessary to perform a lawful investigative traffic stop,” the Court majority stated.

The Court concluded that based on the facts of this case, when an officer encounters a vehicle the whole of which is painted a different color from the color listed on the vehicle registration, and the officer, based on his experience, believes the vehicle or the license plates may be stolen, then the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity and can perform an investigative traffic stop.

The Court affirmed the Twelfth District’s opinion.

Dissent Finds Stop Unreasonable
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Donnelly wrote the color discrepancy, by itself, does not provide the suspicion necessary to justify a stop and seizure, and he expressed “grave concerns about the state using the holding in this case in broader contexts.”

Justice Donnelly stated a review of the “totality of the circumstances” is inapplicable in this case because the officer relied only on one fact to justify the search. He stated that Heinz’ knowledge of the color mismatches leading to stolen vehicles came from “secondhand anecdotal information,” and was not from his personal experience or specialized training.

The dissent stated that in the Terry case, there were multiple facts that were individually innocent but cumulatively suspicious, leading an officer to suspect criminal activity, and those circumstances required the court to review the totality of the circumstances. In this case, only the single fact that the 15-year-old black GMC SUV was registered as a 15-year-old white GMC SUV was used to justify the stop.

Justice Donnelly wrote the majority defends the reasonableness of the search because officers can draw on their “own experiences and specialized training” when making inferences about the facts. But Heinz testified he had investigated countless stolen vehicles, and that he had no personal experience connecting a color discrepancy to the switching of license plates.

“If anything, Officer Heinz’s testimony regarding his own personal experience on the police force suggested that license-plate-switching was not likely to have happened,” he wrote. “He had investigated both vehicle thefts and license-plate thefts. But he had not once in his entire 14-year career encountered a situation in which a person had stolen a vehicle and replaced its license plates with plates that he had stolen from a similar vehicle of a different color.”

Justice Donnelly noted that it is not against the law to drive a vehicle whose color does not match the registration, and doing so is innocent conduct. To make a search reasonable, innocent conduct must be combined with additional conduct that would lead to reasonable suspicion of illegal conduct.

While it is unusual for vehicle colors not to match the registration, no information presented at Hawkins’ hearing established that drivers of vehicles with mismatched color information “are not, by and large, innocent travelers,” and subjecting them to “random investigatory seizures” violates the Fourth Amendment, the dissent concluded.

2018-1177. State v. Hawkins, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4210.

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