Thursday, February 19, 2015

The License Plate, the Police Computer and the Mistake

Kelly Randall Meadows “entered a guilty plea to driving while being an habitual motor vehicle offender pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement” but also “reserved a certified question of law for appeal.”  State v. Meadows, 2015 WL 554745 (Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee 2015).  The issue Meadows preserved for appeal was “`whether reasonable suspicion or probable caused existed to stop and seize [Meadows’] vehicle based on incorrect information contained in the police database?’” State v. Meadows, supra.
The court began its opinion by explaining how the prosecution arose:
On March 23, 2011, Metro Nashville Police Officer Coleman Womack was on routine [Meadows]. Womack testified that in the area of Dickerson Road upon which he was traveling, many older model vehicles displayed registration tags that were actually legally assigned to a different vehicle. He explained that when an older vehicle's tags expired, the owner sometimes used the tag of another vehicle rather than renew the expired tags. For that reason, Womack often used the laptop computer in his patrol car to access a database to see if a particular registration tag was assigned to the vehicle upon which it was displayed. [Meadows’] 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck was over twenty-five years old, so Womack `ran’ the number, 990 TGD, displayed on the truck through the database. Womack testified that the tag number,

`came back to some type of Pontiac or something, which is once again, it's common when the tag runs out, its expired, if your car won't pass [emissions testing], take the tag off another vehicle and put it onto [sic] yours.’

As a result of the information received from the database, Officer Womack stopped [Meadows’] vehicle. Womack approached the pickup truck and told [Meadows]  he was stopped because the tag number was not assigned to the truck. Womack asked [Meadows] for his driver's license. [Meadows] responded that he did not have a driver's license. [He] provided a non-license identification card and stated that the tag did belong to the truck. [Meadows] produced a vehicle registration that showed the registration tag on the truck had in fact been properly assigned to the 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck driven by [Meadows].
State v. Meadows, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that
[v]aguely leaving open the possibility that the registration paper produced by [Meadows] possibly could have been a `false’ registration, Womack reluctantly conceded that the database provided him with incorrect information. Specifically, Womack testified,

`I'm assuming it gave me erroneous information, yes. I don't know that for a hundred percent, no. . . . I don't think it was [a registration violation], no. I never said -- it's very unusual for that to happen I guess is what I'm saying, I don't -- that doesn't happen once in a, you know, ten years that a tag comes back to something else and somebody hand me the registration showing it's not, so it's very unusual.’
State v. Meadows, supra (emphasis in the original).  The court went on to note that “[i]n fact, the exact same thing happened to Womack in March 2003, as set forth in an opinion heavily relied upon by the State in its argument in the case”.  State v. Meadows, supra. 
The Court of Criminal Appeals goes on to explain that
Womack testified that he ultimately arrested [Meadows] for the Class E felony offense of driving while his driving privileges were revoked after being declared an habitual motor vehicle offender. [Meadows] filed a motion to suppress all evidence, asserting Womack made an unconstitutional stop of [him] without a warrant and without a lawful exception to the warrant requirement. The only person who testified at the suppression hearing was Womack, and the summary of the facts in this opinion comes from that hearing.
State v. Meadows, supra. 
At the hearing, Meadows argued that
since the only reason Womack initiated the stop was proven to be incorrect information, then there was not a reasonable suspicion, based upon specific and articulable facts, [Meadows] had a valid registration tag displayed on his vehicle at the time of the stop. Therefore, [he] argues, a valid warrantless stop could never be based upon his vehicle unlawfully displaying an unauthorized vehicle registration tag.
State v. Meadows, supra.  The prosecution countered with the argument that
the registration tag did belong to the 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck did not mean the warrantless stop was unconstitutional. The State asserted that at the time of the stop the information about [Meadows’] registration tag, even if erroneous, provided specific and articulable facts which gave Womack a reasonable suspicion that a crime was being committed.
State v. Meadows, supra. 
The opinion goes on to explain that the trial judge
took the matter under advisement and subsequently filed a memorandum opinion denying the motion to suppress. In its findings of fact the trial court stated that Womack received information from the police database that the registration tag attached to the 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck was assigned to a different vehicle. The trial court found that, in fact, the 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck driven by Defendant did have the proper registration tag attached to it. The trial court determined that `the State produced evidence to establish the legal justification for the officer to make the stop, however, that information proved to be erroneous.’

The trial court relied upon the case of David M. Whitman, Jr., 2005 WL 3299827 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2006), in which Womack on a previous occasion `stopped a vehicle for a registration violation after a computer check of state and local databases erroneously showed the tags belonged to a different vehicle.’ Based upon the holding of a panel of this Court in David M. Whitman, Jr., that the erroneous information did not negate reasonable suspicion to justify the stop, the trial court denied [Meadows’] motion to suppress. 
State v. Meadows, supra. 
The court then began its analysis of Meadows’ argument on appeal: “`Whether reasonable suspicion or probable cause existed to stop and seize [Meadows’] vehicle based on incorrect information contained in the police database?’” State v. Meadows, supra.  The appellate court explained that it
is well settled that both the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of theTennessee Constitution protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by agents of the State. While the basic constitutional rule is that any warrantless search or warrantless seizure is unreasonable, there are a few specific exceptions to the rule. . . . There are two levels of police-citizen interaction which constitute a `seizure’ for the purpose of constitutional analysis. . . . 

These categories are the (1) full-scale arrest, which must be justified by probable cause that the seized person has committed an offense, and (2) a brief investigatory detention, which must be supported by reasonable suspicion that an offense has been or is being committed, and the reasonable suspicion must be based upon specific and articulable facts. State v. Day, 263 S.W.3d 891 (Tennessee Supreme Court 2008). As noted above, the `level of reasonable suspicion required to support an investigatory stop is lower than that required for probable cause.’ State v. Day, supra.  However, the officer's reasonable suspicion, in order to justify a warrantless stop, must be supported by `specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.’ Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
State v. Meadows, supra. 
The appellate court went on to note that in State v. Day, supra, the Tennessee Supreme Court pointed out that, under U.S. Supreme Court precedents, “a court must consider the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a police officer's reasonable suspicion is supported by specific and articulable facts”.  State v. Day, supra (quoting Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325 (U.S. Supreme Court 1990)).  And in State v. Day, supra, the Tennessee Supreme Court listed the “circumstances” cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alabama v. White:
(1) the objective observations of the police officer;
(2) information obtained from other officers or agencies;
(3) information obtained from citizens; and
(4) the pattern of operation of certain offenders.
State v. Day, supra.
The appellate court then took up the “totality of the circumstances” in the
case under review, we first observe that no information was obtained from any citizens. All of the evidence presented at the suppression hearing came from the testimony of Womack. Womack testified that in the geographical area of the stop, many older vehicles displayed registration tags which were legally assigned to a different vehicle. The trial court did not mention this testimony in its findings of fact. However, the testimony was not challenged during cross-examination by [Meadows], and the findings of fact by the trial court strongly imply that the trial court accredited all of Womack's testimony. Accordingly, we conclude that the pattern of operation of certain offenders in the area that [Meadows] was driving was as testified to by Officer Womack.
State v. Meadows, supra.
The court goes on to note that Womack
observed that [Meadows] was operating an older vehicle in the area where it was not uncommon for older vehicles to display non-authorized registration tags. Womack obtained information from the police database via the laptop computer in his patrol car that the registration tag affixed to [Meadows’] 1985 Mitsubishi pickup truck was supposed to be displayed on a different vehicle.

As conceded by the State and specifically found by the trial court, the information relied upon by Womack was incorrect.  Under White, `reasonable suspicion’ depends upon the `degree of reliability’ of information possessed by the officer. Alabama v. White, supra.  An obvious question as to the reliability of registration tag information in the police database is raised because a blatant mistake in crucial information has happened twice to the officer in this case. However, the question is merely academic.

Womack's credibility as to his testimony that the database sent him incorrect information was not attacked at the suppression hearing. For instance, there was no independent proof presented that what was contained on the database was inconsistent with Womack's testimony. Also, there was no evidence of widespread errors in the database system that would tend to show the database information was not reliable. While the trial court found in its memorandum opinion that [Meadows’] case was `eerily similar’ in facts to an earlier case where Womack was given the identical type of incorrect information, the trial court nevertheless found that Womack was given the incorrect information from the database.
State v. Meadows, supra.
It therefore held that the
`degree of reliability’ of the source of the information possessed by Womack, under the specific facts contained in the record in this case, was sufficient to support reasonable suspicion, based upon specific and articulable facts, that Defendant was committing a violation of the law regarding vehicle registration tags and that the stop was therefore not in violation of the constitutions of the United States or the State of Tennessee.
State v. Meadows, supra.
The court based that conclusion on the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee’s decision in State v. Rhymer, 915 S.W.2d 465 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 1995), in which
a police officer noticed that the license plate on a grey Volkswagen had marks on it indicating to the officer that the plates might have belonged to another vehicle. . . . After requesting a registration check from dispatch, the officer was advised that the license plate was registered to a brown Chevrolet. . . . Based upon this information, the officer stopped the Volkswagen and subsequently arrested the defendant for DUI. . . . It was later determined that the information supplied by the police database was erroneous; the license plate was properly transferred from the Chevrolet to the Volkswagen. . . .

After analyzing both federal and Tennessee cases, the Rhymer court held that the police officer's reliance on the erroneous information received via computer check coupled by the physical appearance of the license plate provided the officer with reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. . . . As the Rhymer court explained, `[t]o hold that police officers could not rely on [information from a police computer database] in forming reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop would have the effect of unnecessarily tying the hands of officers in countless situations.’
State v. Meadows, supra (quoting State v. David M. Whitman, Jr., State v. David M. Whitman, Jr., 2005 WL 3299817 (Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee 2005)). 
The Meadows court therefore found that its analysis in State v. Rhymer, supra, also applied here:
Looking at the facts of this case, it is our view that the information from the computer check, albeit erroneous, provided reasonable suspicion that [Meadows] was in violation of a traffic law. It is undisputed that the police officer stopped the defendant's vehicle based upon information he received as a result of a computer check, which showed that [his] license plate registration belonged to another vehicle.

This information came from a source independent of the officer's own knowledge and perceptions. Once the officer learned of the license plate discrepancy, he had an objective basis for suspecting that [Meadows] was violating a traffic law; and therefore, he was justified in stopping the vehicle and requesting a driver's license and vehicle registration from [Meadows]. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied [Meadows’] motion to suppress, and the issue is without merit.
State v. Meadows, supra.

This opinion is essentially predicated on the principle, which the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted, that an officer’s “reasonable mistake of law” can provide the reasonable suspicion needed to conduct a search under the 4th Amendment.  State v. Meadows, supra. You can read more about that here and here.

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