Rental car did not have tag conspicuously displayed which justified stop


In 2006, Tyronne Lekeith Wade was driving a rental car through Harrison County, Mississippi. The rental car did not have a traditional metal license plate displayed in the commonly-accepted location. Instead, there was a paper Alabama license displayed in the rear window. Deputy William Senseney with the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department did not see the paper Alabama license in the rear window of Wade’s rental car, because it was displayed from the inside of the heavily-tinted rear window of the rental car and the window was covered by a layer of dirt and dust. Because Senseney did not see any license plate when he encountered Wade, he pulled Wade over at approximately 10:13 a.m.

As Senseney approached Wade’s rental car, Deputy Senseney noticed the Alabama paper license in the rear window of the car. Senseney then went to the passenger side of Wade’s rental car and asked Wade for his driver’s license and his proof of insurance. Wade presented his North Carolina driver’s license and informed Senseney that the rental car was insured through the rental agreement.

Senseney noticed that Wade appeared nervous. According to Senseney, Wade’s hands were shaking when he provided his driver’s license and the rental agreement. Senseney asked Wade “where he was coming from.” Senseney reported that Wade told him “that he was just coming from seeing his uncle who was dying of cancer in Beaumont, Texas.” However, Senseney later repeated his question to Wade. Wade’s later response indicated that he could not remember what he had said to Senseney. According to Senseney, Wade hesitated for a while, and he then said “where did I tell you I was coming from?” Deputy Senseney responded, “I don’t know . . . you tell me.” Wade then said, “well, you know where I was coming from.”

Senseney then asked Wade how his uncle was doing. As mentioned, Wade first told Senseney that his uncle was dying. However, when asked about his uncle a second time, Wade replied, “oh, he’s fine. I just went out there to visit him.”

According to Senseney, the placement of certain items in Wade’s rental car further aroused his suspicions. Senseney smelled an unusually strong odor of air fresheners from the car, and he noticed that there were large air fresheners attached to each of the rental car’s air conditioning vents. Wade had a small Bible in the open console of the rental car, and he had hung a set of rosary beads from the dashboard. Additionally, Wade had hung a set of military identification tags, commonly referred to as “dog tags,” from the rear-view mirror. Senseney articulated that, under the totality of the circumstances, he became suspicious that the air fresheners could be intended to mask the smell of narcotics, and the religious and military articles could be intended to convey a message that Wade was a “good person” who would not warrant further attention.

Senseney asked Wade to join him in his patrol car while he wrote out what he described as a “courtesy citation” for what he characterized as Wade’s “improperly displayed tag.” Wade complied and sat in the front passenger seat of the patrol car. Meanwhile, Senseney noticed that Wade’s breathing seemed to be heavier than what he would think would be a normal person’s breathing patterns, and he continued to fidget with the leg on his pants and just appeared to be nervous.

Senseney requested a criminal background check on Wade. While they waited, Senseney reviewed Wade’s rental agreement. Senseney noticed what he considered to be another inconsistency in Wade’s story. Although Wade told Senseney that he was coming from Beaumont, Texas, the rental agreement reflected that Wade had rented the car in Harlingen, Texas. According to Senseney, “Beaumont is basically on one side of Texas; Harlingen is down on the opposite end of Texas down by the border in the valley area.” When the criminal background check on Wade was completed, Senseney discovered that Wade had several prior drug-related arrests, with the latest one being in June of 2006 in Louisiana. However, there were no outstanding warrants for Wade’s arrest.

Wade refused to sign a consent form and refused to consent to a search of his rental car. However, after Wade refused to consent to a search of his rental car, Deputy Senseney requested that an officer with a drug-detecting dog report to the scene of the traffic stop.

Deputy Timothy Huguet arrived at the scene of the traffic stop in just three minutes. Senseney testified that when Wade realized that Huguet was walking around his rental car with a dog, Wade hopped out of the patrol car and protested.

Huguet’s dog “alerted” at the right and left rear quarterpanels of the rental car and indicated that it had smelled narcotics in the rental car. Senseney and Huguet then searched Wade’s rental car. They found approximately sixty pounds of what they suspected to be bundled and packaged marijuana concealed within three suitcases: two in the back cargo area of the rental car, and one on the passenger side of the back seat.

Wade was convicted of possession of controlled substance with intent to distribute and sentenced to 20 years. On appeal, he argued there was no reasonable suspicion for the car stop. MCOA affirmed.


A. Deputy Senseney’s right to stop Wade

The facts in this case are strikingly similar to the underlying facts in Gonzales. In Gonzales, a Mississippi State Highway Patrol Trooper stopped a rental car because the trooper could not see a temporary license tag that was displayed from the inside of windows that were described as “very dark” and “very tinted.” The MSC noted that vehicles operated on Mississippi’s highways must have tags conspicuously displayed on the vehicle being operated in such a manner that it may be easily read. They went on to hold that in light of this clear statutory language, it is not enough that the vehicle actually had a tag. If the tag was not conspicuously displayed and easily read, the trooper was fully justified in making the stop.

Senseney’s decision to stop Wade was not unreasonable. Senseney was not able to see Wade’s license plate because it was displayed inside the heavily-tinted rear window of Wade’s rental car, and the tag was further obscured by a significant amount of dirt and dust. Having viewed the picture introduced in evidence that depicted Wade’s rental car and the visible conditions of the rear window, it was reasonable that Senseney could not see Wade’s tag. Even from a close viewpoint in daylight, it is impossible to determine that the rectangular object in the window is a valid temporary license tag.

Failure to conspicuously display a tag in such a manner that it may easily be read is an offense under Mississippi Code Annotated section 27-19-323 (Rev. 2006). Additionally, Mississippi Code Annotated section 27-19-40 (Rev. 2006) regulates “special in-transit tags” like the tag presently at issue, and requires that such a tag be “properly displayed” and “displayed in plain view.” Miss. Code Ann. § 27-19-40(1)(c) and (4) (Rev. 2006). Senseney personally observed that Wade did not have a license plate that was “conspicuously displayed” on his rental car.

Additionally, because Senseny could not see any license plate on Wade’s rental car, Senseney had probable cause to believe that Wade did not have a license plate. It follows that Senseney had probable cause to believe that Wade had committed a traffic violation.

Wade stopped his car, and as Senseney approached Wade, Senseney realized that Wade had a temporary Alabama license plate. However, having stopped Wade, Senseney also had the responsibility to ensure that Wade’s temporary license plate was valid and that Wade had liability insurance. See Miss. Code Ann. § 63-15-4(3) (Rev. 2004) (stating that upon stopping a motor vehicle for any other statutory violation, a law enforcement officer, who is authorized to issue traffic citations, shall verify that the insurance card required by this section is in the motor vehicle).

B. Deputy Senseney’s right to detain Wade

Senseney wrote a “courtesy citation” for Wade’s failure to display his temporary tag in plain view. During the stop, Senseney observed certain aspects of Wade’s behavior that aroused his suspicions.

Wade’s prior criminal history, display of religious items, display of military “dog tags,” and the presence of air fresheners may not, on their own or taken together, give rise to further detention of Wade. However, when viewed alongside Wade’s nervous behavior and inconsistent statements about his trip, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the “dog tags,” religious items, and heavy odor of air fresheners could be intended to conceal or distract from criminal behavior. Consequently, we cannot find that the circuit court erred when it determined that those circumstances, in conjunction with the inconsistencies in Wade’s responses and his articulable nervous behavior, warranted Senseney’s further investigation.

Senseney clearly articulated that the heavy odor of air fresheners could be an attempt to mask the smell of narcotics. Senseney also stated that the Bible, rosary beads, and military identification tags could have been placed intentionally to send a message that the driver is a “good person” who was unlikely to be someone that might smuggle contraband items.

If, during a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer develops reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity other than what was originally suspected, the scope of the officer’s stop expands and includes the investigation of the newly-suspected criminal activity. See MCOA Tate.

Based on the matters discussed above, Senseney developed reasonable, articulable suspicion that Wade was engaged in smuggling narcotics. It follows that Senseney had a legal basis to detain Wade until Huguet could resolve his reasonable suspicion through the dog’s sniff test of Wade’s car. The record reflects that it took just three minutes for Huguet to respond with a dog. Huguet’s dog “alerted” and indicated that it smelled contraband. Those positive alerts created probable cause for Senseney and Huguet to search Wade’s car.

Accordingly, pursuant to our standard of review, we can find no error in the circuit court’s decision to deny Wade’s motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of Senseney’s traffic stop.