Can a License Plate Check Provide Enough Reason to Stop a Car/ March 31, 2012
Courts have determined that simply checking a vehicle’s license plates by itself is not a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In other words, police officers are legally permitted to run a vehicle’s license plate number through their computers. This is permitted even when the officer has an ulterior motive, such as wanting to find out whether the driver has had anything to drink.
By randomly checking license plate numbers police can determine whether there are any problems with the registration of the vehicle or the status of the vehicle owner’s driver’s license. If there are problems, like the registered owner has a suspended license or the registration is expired, this provides police with a legitimate reason to stop the vehicle. This does not mean that the police can just pull a driver out and have them submit to field sobriety tests. In order to have a driver submit to field sobriety tests, an officer must first have a reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired.
To establish that reasonable suspicion, the officer is going to start asking questions and generally go on a fishing expedition to determine whether they can come up with some reason to have the driver submit to field sobriety tests and ultimately make a drunk driving arrest.
Each case is different, so there are ways for experienced DUI attorneys to challenge the legality of the stop. For instance, if the stop was based on the fact that the registered owner had a suspended license but you were not the registered owner, the police can’t continue to detain you once they have determined that you are not the owner.