In Florida, when a person purchases a vehicle, he/she must register it with the state and purchase a license tag. When applying for a license tag, the person must provide his/her information as well as a description of the vehicle that remains in the state database. This includes the make, model and year of the vehicle as well as the color. Drivers are required to attach the tag to the registered vehicle when driving the vehicle. The police use the tag to access the state database and properly identify the vehicle and the owner. If the police officer runs a tag and finds the tag was registered to a Ford but is now attached to a Honda, the police officer can pull over the driver to investigate whether the vehicle and/or the license tag was stolen or the license tag was improperly transferred to another vehicle..
Are the police allowed to pull over a vehicle after running the tag and finding a less significant difference between the vehicle observed and the information in the state database? In a recent criminal case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police officer ran a license tag and everything matched except the state database indicated the vehicle was light blue when the vehicle was actually black. Based on this discrepancy, the police officer pulled the driver over to see if the car or the license tag was stolen or the tag had been transferred to a different vehicle. The driver provided a driver’s license and registration that matched the vehicle. The driver indicated that he had recently painted the vehicle but did not inform the DMV. The police officer then asked for consent to search his vehicle, and the driver agreed. The police officer found marijuana and illegal pills in the vehicle, and the driver was arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of pills without a prescription.
The criminal defense lawyer challenged the legality of the stop. If the stop was not valid, the consent the driver gave the police officer to search his car would also be invalid, and the evidence of the drugs would be thrown out. The stop would only be valid if the police officer had reasonable suspicion to believe the driver was violating a traffic law or crime. The criminal defense attorney noted that a vehicle owner is not required to notify the state when he/she changes the color of a vehicle.
The court noted that improperly transferring a license plate is a second degree misdemeanor in Florida. The court found that the discrepancy with the color of the car gave the police officer sufficient reasonable suspicion to believe this crime may have occurred. Therefore, the traffic stop was valid, and the consent to search the vehicle was valid as well.