Many people face criminal charges after they are pulled over by a police officer who initiates the stop after running a car’s license plate number through government databases. If the officer determines there is reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place, they can pull your car over.
For example, an officer might run your plates and see that the driver to whom the car is registered has a suspended driver’s license. With that information, police have reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place. The crime suspected here would be driving on a suspended license. Once pulled over, police may see evidence of another crime such as weapons or drug possession.
Because this type of stop is common, criminal defense attorneys are repeatedly asked if the police are permitted to run your plates without a reason prior to initiating a traffic stop. The short answer to this question is yes. It is legal for an officer to run your plates before he or she has reason to suspect a crime is taking place.
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
Courts have decided that police can randomly check license plates because drivers do not have an expectation of privacy concerning their license plates. This is because a car’s license plate can be viewed by anyone in public. Thus, police officers can make use of this information simply based on a hunch or some sort of routine investigation.
When Can an Officer Search Your Vehicle?
If after the officer pulls you over he or she does not discover any traffic violations or other crimes, that officer is not allowed to search your vehicle. In order to search your vehicle, an officer needs probable cause that a crime has been committed or there is evidence of a crime in your car. Probable cause must be based on specific facts and cannot be based solely on an officer’s “gut feeling” that something illegal has happened.
What If the Stop Is Based on Incorrect Information?
Another issue comes up is if the police officer accidentally puts in the wrong license plate information. In this situation, an officer will still be found to have acted within the law. According to Supreme Court case United States v. Leon, a good faith mistake on the part of a police officer will not result in excluding evidence of a crime based on an investigation that began with bad information.
If you have been charged with a crime, there is too much on the line not to try to handle it yourself. Contact an experienced Wheaton criminal defense attorney who can give you the time and attention your case deserves. Call 630-933-8400 for a free consultation at our law firm today.