A police officer may perform a license plate inquiry on any vehicle on the road and can do so even before a traffic stop. Sometimes, the inquiry tells an officer if the registered owner has a suspended license or a warrant. Other times it indicates other legal issues, such as a registration or insurance lapse.
But what happens when the license plate inquiry indicates the car had recently been impounded? Is this reason to believe criminality is afoot? Does this justify a stop of the car? In the case of People v. Robert Hinshaw, the Court of Appeals considered the issue.
Facts of the Case
A state trooper stopped a vehicle on a Buffalo city street in the afternoon of November 8, 2014. The trooper observed no traffic violations, the vehicle’s inspection was valid, and the two occupants were wearing seatbelts. Yet the trooper performed a license plate inquiry, and a response was returned – “CONFIRM RECORD WITH ORIGINATOR,” listed as Buffalo City Police Department. The response continued:
**THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN REPORTED AS AN IMPOUNDED VEHICLE —- IT SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS A STOLEN VEHICLE HIT —- NO FURTHER ACTION SHOULD BE TAKEN BASED SOLELY UPON THIS IMPOUNDED RESPONSE**
Yet the trooper decided to stop the vehicle to investigate anyway. The driver, Robert Hinshaw, produced a valid license and registration. Mr. Hinshaw told the trooper that the car had been stolen recently and was then impounded. The trooper detected an odor of marijuana and observed a marijuana cigarette in the center console. Thereafter, the trooper searched Mr. Hinshaw, another occupant, and the car. The trooper found marijuana as well as a loaded gun under the driver’s seat.
Mr. Hinshaw faced charges of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree and Unlawful Possession of Marijuana. He moved to suppress the marijuana, the gun, and his statements. Mr. Hinshaw lost the suppression hearing, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Mr. Hinshaw then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
What’s the Law on a Vehicle Stop?
A vehicle stop is a seizure implicating the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, along with related provisions of the New York State Constitution. Automobile stops are lawful only when:
- Based on probable cause that a driver has committed a traffic violation
- Based on a reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime
- When conducted pursuant to non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory, uniform highway traffic procedures
If a police officer doesn’t have lawful grounds to stop a vehicle, evidence obtained pursuant to that stop may be deemed inadmissible against the defendant.
Analysis of the Stop in the Hinshaw Case
As a first step, the Court of Appeals determined Mr. Hinshaw had committed no violations of the law to justify the stop. But for the result of the license plate inquiry by the trooper, the stop of Mr. Hinshaw was unlawful. Thus the Court set out to determine if the stop pursuant to the license plate inquiry was lawful.
The Court held that the result of the license plate inquiry did not provide either probable cause to conclude a traffic infraction had occurred, nor any other basis to indicate that criminal behavior had occurred or was afoot. Mr. Hinshaw’s car had at one point been impounded by the Buffalo Police Department. A car may be impounded for a variety of reasons independent of a violation of the law. The record of impound alone did not provide the trooper a reasonable suspicion of criminality.
The Court of Appeals held the state lacked an objectively reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred. It further held that there was no probable cause to stop Mr. Hinshaw’s vehicle for a traffic infraction. As such, the automobile stop was unlawful. Accordingly, Mr. Hinshaw’s motion to suppress the evidence was granted entirety, and the indictment against him was dismissed.
- People v. Robert Hinshaw (2020). Available at: https://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/Decisions/2020/Sep20/46opn20-Decision.pdf (last accessed Sept. 2, 2020).
- Barry Kamins, “Automobile Stops and Searches.” Available at: https://www.newyorksearchandseizure.com/searches (last accessed Sept. 2, 2020).