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A guy came to me the other day with a typical case. Cop pulled him over, smelled some weed in the car and then started asking questions. In the end my client was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana. He came to me, and we were able to work a good deal with the DA that kept the whole thing off his record, which was good since he didn’t want to suffer any of the collateral consequences that often go with even a misdemeanor conviction.


Driving Your Buddy’s Car?

Here’s the thing: while we were talking he tells me that he thought the cop had no reason to pull him over at all and that he was driving well and so on. As I dug a little deeper into the matter it turns out he was in fact driving well and that there were no obvious traffic violations and basically no suspicious behavior that the cop could use to justify his pulling my client over. However, as it happened, the car my client was driving was loaned to him by his buddy. HIs buddy, unfortunately, has a number of unpaid tickets and was actually in a state of license revocation. The cop, as it turns out, had pulled my client over when he ran the tag on the loaner car he was driving and discovered that it was registered to a guy who had a DWLR.

So… can a cop run your tag and pull you over just like that, even if you’re not driving badly? The answer is, unfortunately, yes.

When a cop “runs your tag” by putting the tag number into his computer he has access to all kinds of info on the car and the guy the car is registered to. While defendants sometimes like to argue that the cop is conducting an illegal search by doing so, the courts have said generally that this is not so. See, for instance, State v. Chambers, 2010 WL (NC Ct App April 6, 2010) (which is an unpublished opinion). There the court said: “Defendant’s license tag was displayed, as required by North Carolina law, on the back of his vehicle for all of society to view. Therefore the defendant did not have a subjective or objective reasonable expectation of privacy in his license tag. As such the officer’s actions did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment.” That seems to be the way courts look at this in other jurisdictions too. In the Oregon Court of Appeals, the court said “the state (meaning cops) can access a person’s driving records by observing a driver’s registration plate that is displayed in plain view and looking up that registration plate number in the state’s own records.”

In another case, this time from New Jersey, the court said that the driver of a car has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of a vehicle, including the license plate, so an officer’s ability to run a tag should not be limited to only those instances when he actually witnesses violation of motor vehicle laws.” See State v. Donis, 723 A.2d 35 (NJ 1998).


The Bottom Line

Even if you’re driving swell, not weaving or speeding or anything, and all your car’s gear is in order, your lights are working and your glass isn’t tinted too much or any of that jazz, the cops can STILL pull you over if they run the tag that’s on the car and find anything amiss. If the tag doesn’t go with the car: pulled over. If the owner of the tag has problems with his license: pulled over. If the tag comes back as having no insurance: pulled over.  In short if ANY violation that relates to the car, or the tag, or the owner of either is discovered by the cop when he runs the tag, it can be used as grounds for the stop.


The Upshot

So where’s this put us? Well, as a lawyer I am duty bound not to encourage criminal conduct or advise anyone how to get away with transgressing the law. But this I CAN say:

If you’re worried about getting pulled over for ANY reason at all, you better make sure your plates are all in order and that if you’re driving a borrowed car, the owner does’t have problems with his tags, license or insurance and that he’s not a wanted guy for some reason.

All that is just like a cop magnet. Hey, maybe better just stay home tonight!

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