Many drug cases start with a simple traffic stop that turns into a search of the vehicle by police and/or a police K9 and ultimately an arrest on some drug charge. However, in order for that drug charge to be valid, the initial stop of the suspect and the search must be valid under the Constitution. In most cases, for the initial stop to be valid, the police must have probable cause, or at least reasonable suspicion, that the driver is violating a traffic law or committing some other crime. For the search to be valid, the police officer normally must have consent to search the vehicle or probable cause to believe there are drugs or is evidence of criminal activity in the vehicle.
In a recent drug trafficking case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was driving a blue Ford when a police officer saw him and ran the tag. Apparently, the tag was registered to the same type of vehicle but the color on the registration information was green. Based solely on the color inconsistency, the police officer stopped the driver. The driver told the police officer that he had recently had the vehicle painted. The police officer smelled marijuana coming from the vehicle and searched it. Inside the vehicle, the police officer found marijuana and crack cocaine. The defendant was arrested for trafficking in marijuana and cocaine.
In most cases, a police officer can only stop a driver if there is specific evidence giving the officer at least a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The criminal defense lawyer argued that changing the color of a vehicle is not illegal or suspicious, and there is no legal obligation to report a change in vehicle color to the state. As a result, the court found that a police officer cannot stop a vehicle just because the vehicle’s color is different from the color on the registration information. This factor alone is insufficient evidence of criminal activity. However, there have been some courts in other states that have allowed a police officer to stop a vehicle based solely on a color discrepancy.
On the other hand, when a police officer runs a tag and the registration information comes back to a different make or model of a vehicle, that would likely be a legal basis to stop a vehicle because it is unlawful to change a license plate from the registered vehicle to another vehicle.