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Incorrect License Tag Creates Reasonable Suspicion

Reasonable suspicion that a person may have committed a crime or be in the process of committing a crime is necessary before a person can be detained (nonconsensually) by law enforcement for even a brief investigation. Reasonable suspicion must be based upon articulable facts. A detention or seizure, which occurs unlawfully, may invalidate evidence obtained as a result of that illegal seizure. In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Seay, M2011-02769-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 7-16-2013), the Court of Criminal Appeals noted that having the wrong license tag on a vehicle does create reasonable suspicion for further investigation.

In the Seay case, a police officer on patrol noticed an older model Chevrolet Impala parked on the roadway. He was not certain if the engine was running. He decided to run a check on the license tag, and discovered the tag belonged to a 1990s model Pontiac. Based upon this, the police officer turned his blue lights on to detain the occupant of the vehicle for further investigation. The officer discovered the driver of the vehicle did not have a driver's license. The driver explained he had exchanged the license tag on the vehicle with another vehicle he owned, because the Impala had an antique tag, which limited when it could be driven. Upon arresting the driver, the police officer discovered, attached the driver's key ring, a pill fob which contained cocaine.

The Defendant eventually pled guilty to possession of more than .5 gram of cocaine, but reserved for appeal the question of whether his detention, arrest, and search were valid. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling finding the evidence was lawfully obtained. The Court of Criminal Appeals noted that the discovery that the license tag on a vehicle is not registered to that vehicle does create a basis for an investigatory stop.

For more information on what may create reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop and detention, contact Hindman & Associates.

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