From [HERE] We have a new item to add to the list of things law enforcement finds suspicious. And not just "hmm, that's strange," but rather, "hmm, let's stop this vehicle and search everyone and everything in it." To date, a long list has been compiled of activities law enforcement finds inherently suspicious, many of which are contradictory or encompass the routine daily activities of millions of non-criminal US citizens.
[Black] People have been declared "suspicious" for being too calm or too nervous. For making eye contact and not making eye contact. Talking too much is suspicious. The same goes for not talking enough. Driving roads that connect major cities is suspicious because all major cities contain both buyers and sellers of drugs. Cops have argued that activities they've witnessed daily without affecting an arrest is suddenly suspicious when a traffic stop/fishing expedition results in a drug bust.
A white officer with the Waterloo, Iowa police department is adding something new to this impossibly long list of dubious traffic stop justifications: driving with valid Iowa dealer's plates in Iowa. (via Brad Heath)
The traffic stop was initiated because officer witnessed something possibly suspicious two days earlier involving the vehicle officers pulled over two days later. A shooting was being investigated and appellant Joshua Rode, a Black man, was spotted exiting the vehicle in a gang-operated area. At the point the stop was initiated, Rode was presumably considered to be a possible gang member. But according to the officers' testimony, he was also "suspected" to have been the victim of the unreported shooting the officers were investigating.
Based on this weird connective tissue, Sergeant Kye Richter radioed Officer Diana Del Valle and suggested she initiate a pretextual stop of the vehicle. Del Valle needed a bit of outside prompting to find a traffic violation to trigger the stop. From the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court decision [PDF]:
When the BMW departed ten minutes later, Del Valle followed. She saw that the BMW had a dealer advertising plate instead of a rear license plate, which she had noticed two days earlier, and a temporary paper card taped to the inside of the left rear window. Del Valle radioed Richter and Sullivan she had seen “no violations yet.” They asked about the card in the back window. Del Valle said, “you can see a plate, but you can’t read what’s on it.” Officer Sullivan replied, “there you go.” Del Valle activated the lights on her police cruiser and made an “equipment stop.”
Probable cause for the stop? Officer Del Valle seemed to think so. But her own testimony shows no traffic violation had occurred.
She testified that she could first read the numbers on the temporary card when “I got to the trunk area.” She did not examine whether the temporary card was valid (it was) because “I already had the probable cause, which was a temporary tag. I wasn’t focused on whether that tag was valid or not at that time.”
But that was exactly the reason she stopped the vehicle. Sergeant Richter prompted the stop with "there you go," but Del Valle carried out the stop based on the completely wrong theory that possession of a dealer's plate was a traffic violation in and of itself. The district court disagreed and suppressed the weapon found during the ensuing search.
The government appealed, arguing that Del Valle's inability to read every piece of information contained on the temporary tag in the window gave her probable cause to stop the vehicle. The court disagrees. Temporary tags are required to contain certain information, but nothing in the law says all that info needs to be immediately visible to officers following vehicles in all weather at all times of the day.
Del Valle also did not identify what information she could not see that gave her (or Officer Sullivan) reasonable suspicion of a violation. If her reference to “letters or numbers” meant the unique vehicle registration letters and numbers on a license plate, which law enforcement officers often use to identify specific vehicles, then she had no reasonable suspicion at all, because § 321.25 only requires disclosure of “the registration number of the dealer from whom the vehicle was purchased and the date of delivery of the vehicle.” If she meant the dealer’s registration number, she did not explain why she needed to see that when she could plainly see a dealer’s advertising plate in the BMW’s license plate location. If she meant the expiration date -- and nothing in the record even hints at that -- neither Del Valle nor Richter testified as to their basis for believing that the requirement in § 321.25 that this information be “plainly stamped or stenciled” on the temporary card meant that, unless it is readable at night from a pursuing police cruiser, the vehicle is likely breaking the law.
Temporary tags must be visible and legible at all times from any distance is the government's argument. That's the corner it painted itself into with Officer Del Valle's testimony and its insistence on appealing the lower court's decision. The Appeals Court quotes the lower court's ruling, hammering home the fact the government should have known the stop was initiated without probable cause and should have cut its losses at the district level.
As the district court recognized, the government’s position in this case would mean that an Iowa police officer may stop a vehicle displaying a proper form of temporary registration card whenever the officer cannot read the dealer registration number and the card’s expiration date from inside the officer’s following police cruiser.
The Appeals Court refuses to grant the officer good faith, pointing out the government failed to raise this argument at the lower level. Even if it had, the Appeals Court wouldn't have allowed the government to use this escape hatch.
[E]ven if not forfeited, the argument that the officers made a reasonable mistake of Iowa law is without merit: (a) it is not reasonable to construe the requirement of “plainly stamped or stenciled” information in § 321.25 as meaning information that can be read from a pursuing officer’s police cruiser... On the other hand, if the government is arguing that Officer Del Valle (or Officer Sullivan) reasonably believed there was reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop, “mistakes about the requirements of the Fourth Amendment violate the Fourth Amendment even when they are reasonable.”