Features & Columns
Law Enforcement Caught Targeting
Pot-State License Plates
legalized marijuana in some fashion.
Drives 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.
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. Last week, a federal appeals court vindicated him. On a 2-1 vote, the 10th U.S. 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 fully legal or medical marijuana, such as California.
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 U.S. Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in April. 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. He filed a civil lawsuit against the two troopers for violating his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The case had been thrown out of federal district court, but last week'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.
Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.