DENVER, CO — Drivers from pot-friendly West Coast states have long complained of “license plate profiling,” claiming state troopers more interested in drug interdiction than traffic safety perch like vultures along the nation’s east-west interstate highways pull them over on pretextual traffic stops—going 71 in a 70 mph zone, failing to wait two full seconds after signaling before making a lane change, weaving within a lane—because their plates make them suspected marijuana traffickers.
Since Colorado blossomed as a medical marijuana state around 2008 (and ever more so since it legalized weed in 2012), drivers bearing the state’s license plates have been complaining of getting the same treatment. The practice is so common and well-known along the I-80 corridor in Nebraska that Omaha lawyers advertise about it.
Now, one Colorado driver has managed to get something done about it. Peter Vasquez sued a pair of Kansas Highway Patrol officers over a stop and search on I-70 that turned up no drugs and resulted in no arrest, and on Tuesday, a federal appeals court vindicated him.
On a 2-1 vote, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the two troopers violated Vasquez’s constitutional rights by stopping and searching him based primarily on the fact that he came from a state that was a “known drug source.”
Cops can’t do that, the court ruled bluntly. To allow such a practice would justify searching drivers from the 25 states that allow medical or fully legal marijuana.
“It is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate,” Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero wrote in the opinion. “Absent a demonstrated extraordinary circumstance, the continued use of state residency as a justification for the fact of or continuation of a stop is impermissible,” he added.
And the troopers didn’t really have much other basis for suspicion, the court noted. The troopers said their basis was that Vasquez was driving alone, at night, on a “drug corridor,” from “a known drug source area,” he had a blanket and a pillow in his car, the blanket might have obscured something, and he seemed nervous.
“Such conduct, taken together, is hardly suspicious, nor is it unusual,” Lucero noted.
Vasquez was originally pulled over because the troopers “could not read Vasquez’s temporary tag,” and when that issue was dealt with, they issued him a warning ticket. What the law required, the court said, was that the troopers then end their contact with him and allow him to go on his way.
But instead, they asked him to submit to a search of his vehicle, and he declined. They then detained him for 15 minutes until a drug dog could be summoned—another drug war tactic the US Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in April 2015. The drug dog found nothing, and Vasquez was then released.
The troopers may have been done with Vasquez, but he wasn’t done with them or what he saw as their unlawful conduct. He filed a civil lawsuit against the two troopers, Richard Jimerson and Dax Lewis, for violating his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The case had been thrown out in federal district court, but Tuesday’s decision revives it. It also sets legal precedent for the entire 10th Circuit, meaning that cops in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming can’t pull you over and search you just because you have a pot-state license plate.
Kansas officials say they plan to appeal to the 10th Circuit’s full bench, though, but for now, at least, it’s the law.