Officer did not provide enough details concerning his knowledge about subject’s suspended license

Facts

In 1997, while on patrol, Water Valley Police Officer Rick McCuan observed a vehicle being driven by Jimmie Boyd. Through his work as the court officer for the Water Valley municipal court system, McCuan was aware that Boyd’s driver’s license had been suspended in 1989. Suspecting that Boyd was operating a vehicle with a suspended license, McCuan flashed his blue lights and stopped Boyd.

While McCuan advised dispatch of his location and the license plate number of Boyd’s vehicle, Boyd exited his vehicle and approached McCuan who instructed Boyd to return to his vehicle. McCuan then approached the vehicle and asked to see Boyd’s driver’s license, at which point, Boyd admitted that his license had indeed been suspended. McCuan then arrested Boyd and placed him in the back of the patrol car.

When McCuan first approached Boyd’s vehicle, he smelled what he suspected to be marijuana. McCuan also noticed that Boyd had four or five air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. Deciding that he had probable cause to suspect that the vehicle contained marijuana, McCuan requested that the K-9 unit be called in to search the vehicle. The “drug-sniffing” dog searched Boyd’s vehicle but failed to detect the presence of any illegal drugs. During the inventory search of the vehicle, McCuan and another officer discovered a small white box stuffed in the back of the driver’s seat. The box contained twenty-four rocks of cocaine, a razor blade, and a plastic bag containing more cocaine.

Boyd was convicted of possession of cocaine and sentenced to three years. On appeal, he argued the stop was illegal. MCOA agreed with Boyd and reversed.

Analysis

McCuan admitted that the only reason he stopped Boyd was to check his driver’s license, and that Boyd was operating the vehicle in a reasonable manner, committing no traffic violations. The circuit judge denied Boyd’s motion to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle, holding that “[t]he evidence before the Court is that the police officer had personal knowledge that some months prior to the present stop the Defendant did not have a driver’s license and, therefore, the Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated because of the stop.” We disagree.

As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. The U.S. Supreme Court condemned so-called “spot checks” in Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979). In that case, a police officer stopped an automobile and seized marijuana which was in plain view on the car floor. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that prior to stopping the automobile, he had observed neither traffic or equipment violations nor any suspicious activity, and that he made the stop only in order to check the driver’s license and the car’s registration.

The Court held in Prouse that except in those situations in which there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The MSC has not addressed whether a police officer’s personal knowledge that an individual’s license has been suspended is sufficient to constitute probable cause to stop the vehicle he is driving. The MSC in Miller v State, 373 So. 2d 1004 (Miss. 1979), has held that Prouse permits setting up a roadblock for the specific purpose of apprehending those suspected of driving without licenses.

In the present case, it is unclear from the record exactly how “fresh” Officer McCuan’s information was. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, he simply testified that he knew Boyd’s driver’s license had been suspended. He did not say when he acquired this information. The assistant district attorney stated that “Officer McCuan also testified that less than nine months prior to this stop, the Defendant, Mr. Boyd, was given a citation for driving with a suspended license.” This testimony does not appear in the record.

The assistant district attorney further argued “according to the court records of the municipal court clerk, with which Officer McCuan was familiar, his license was not eligible to be—and we can bring him back in here and have him testify to this—but it was not subject to being reinstated until, I believe, at least the year 1999.” The State failed to recall Officer McCuan and have him testify accordingly.

A copy of Boyd’s driving history which appears in the record arguably reveals that Boyd’s license could not be reinstated until 1999; however, there is no proof that Officer McCuan was aware of that information. In fact, Officer McCuan testified that for Boyd to obtain a valid driver’s license, he only had to send in a reinstatement fee. He failed to mention that Boyd would not be able to have his license reinstated until 1999. If he had, the State’s argument that probable cause existed to stop Boyd would be much stronger.

All we have before us is Officer McCuan’s testimony that he knew Boyd’s license had been suspended in 1989, eight years before the traffic stop. This does not satisfy Prouse’s requirement that an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” exist that an individual is unlicensed before he may be stopped. Consequently, the traffic stop of Boyd was illegal, as was the subsequent search and seizure.

Thoughts

In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Glover. Glover held when a police officer lacks information to the contrary, it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the officer to assume that the driver of a vehicle is its owner, and if the owner’s license is revoked, to conduct an investigative stop of the vehicle. Glover didn’t explicitly include suspensions in its holding.

Even if you use Glover, your information will need to be more recent than in the case above.

 

https://courts.ms.gov/images/Opinions/Conv8648.pdf