Police can’t stop drivers based on the color of their car, Florida’s high court ruled last week. The ruling invalidates a conviction that started when an officer in Escambia County spotted a bright green Chevrolet several times in a neighborhood he was patrolling.
In what the sheriff said was part of his normal practice, the sheriff decided to “run” the number from driver Kendrick Teamer’s license plate through the state motor vehicle database, and found that the car was registered as a “blue” Chevrolet. On that basis alone, the deputy sheriff pulled Teamer over, detected the smell of marijuana, searched his car, and found drugs that he used to charge Teamer with trafficking and possession.
A five-justice majority of the Florida Supreme Court found that while the “deputy may have had a suspicion,” it was “not a reasonable or well-founded one, especially given the fact that the driver of the vehicle was not engaged in any suspicious activity.” Florida law, they noted, does not even require individuals to notify the state motor vehicle department when they decide to change the color of their car.
The ruling re-affirms the legal principle that officers cannot use stereotypes or unsubstantiated hunches alone as a basis for stops — racial or non-racial. In one example, the justices analogize this stop to “finding reasonable suspicion for an officer to stop an individual for walking in a sparsely occupied area after midnight simply because that officer testified that, in his experience, people who walk in such areas after midnight tend to commit robberies.” They also compare the practice to the U.S. Supreme Court-invalidated practice of stopping individuals near the border because they appear to have Mexican ancestry.
But this line of cases draws a very fine distinction. While the color of a person’s car or skin alone cannot be the basis of a stop, legal authorities as high as the U.S. Supreme Court have said that using some other legal violation as a pretext for stopping someone on the basis of race (or any other basis) is not a Fourth Amendment violation.
So while officers need to find some other reason to make a stop, the trends of disproportionate stops of minorities, drivers of certain cars, and other populations deemed suspicious have not been significantly undercut by courts.