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Federal Court Says Police Cannot Stop Vehicle with License Plate From a Marijuana State

While we certainly agree that having less government in our lives is a good thing, not every government agency shares our sentiments. Specifically, as it relates to the war on drugs, “small government conservative” politicians and law enforcement continue to expend limited resources and money to detain and arrest people far marijuana crimes. We are happy to see states come to their senses and legalize marijuana, but those legalization efforts have come with unfortunate ramifications for people from those states, even people who do not use the Cannabis plant.

Some police departments near legal marijuana states like Colorado are taking it upon themselves to conduct pretextual traffic stops based on the fact that the vehicle has a license plate from a state where marijuana is legal. For instance, when police officers or highway patrol see a vehicle on the highway driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit, they conduct a traffic stop for speeding if the vehicle has a license plate from a legal marijuana state. They might pull a Washington state driver over for changing lanes without using a blinker when they would never make such a traffic stop for someone else. This is referred to as license plate profiling.

One Colorado driver was not happy with this particular form of government excess and sued the Kansas Highway Patrol. The driver was pulled over because he had a temporary tag from Colorado that was allegedly difficult to read. There was nothing illegal about that, and the Kansas police gave him a warning. Thereafter, the Kansas police asked the driver if they could search his vehicle. He refused, but the police called a drug dog to the scene. The drug dog went around the vehicle, but no illegal drugs were found. The driver sued the Kansas Highway Patrol for violating his constitutional rights based on the illegal search and seizure.

The police officers claimed they stopped the driver because he was driving alone, at night, along a “drug corridor” and from a known drug source area, i.e. Colorado. He was also nervous and had a blanket in his car that could be used to hide drugs. Of course, all of these reasons, individually, or taken together, are ridiculous excuses to intrude on a person’s right to privacy. Under the Constitution, the police need specific facts that indicate a person has illegal drugs or is committing a crime in order to detain a person and/or search his/her property. The police cannot rely on general assumptions and speculation, as they did in this case. The appellate court also noted that being from a state where marijuana is legal is not going to be a reason to pull a driver over.

The Kansas Highway patrol may appeal this case, but for now, the court ruled in favor of the driver on this issue.