Court of Appeals Holds Police Can Run License Plate Without Reasonable Suspicion Because It is Not a Search

In People v Bushey (No. 50), the Court of Appeals was asked to decide if it was an unreasonable search for the police to run a license plate of a driver who was obeying the rules of the road through a Department of Motor Vehicles database to check for any outstanding violations.  In Bushey, the defendant was driving on the SUNY Buffalo campus and happened to drive by a police officer.  The defendant wasn’t driving erratically or violating the Vehicle and Traffic Law in any way.  The officer nevertheless ran the defendant’s license plate number through the DMV database, and discovered that his registration was suspended due to unpaid parking tickets.  The officer, therefore began to follow and stopped the defendant.  During the stop, the office ran the defendant’s license through the database and learned that he had a suspended license too.  Based on the officer’s observations during the stop, the defendant was arrested for DWI and driving with a suspended registration and license.

During a hearing on the lawfulness of the stop, the defendant argued that the officer did not have probable cause to stop his car.  He wasn’t speeding, driving erratically, or violating any other laws, he argued, and thus the stop was impermissible.  The suppression court agreed, and suppressed the evidence obtained from the stop without probable cause and dismissed the charges against the defendant.  An intermediate appellate court, however, reversed.

The Court of Appeals, rationalizing the stop on public safety grounds, holds that it’s within the bounds of the police’s authority to run the license plates of the general public, without any need for reasonable suspicion or probable cause.  Particularly, the Court held, the defendant did not have any reasonable expectation of privacy in the public information tied to his license plate number in the DMV database.  Adopting the rule of numerous federal courts, the Court held that because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the license plate information, it is not a search for the police to run the number through the DMV database, even if there is no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to do so.

Bushey pic

Finally, the Court held that because the DMV information revealed that the defendant was driving on a suspended registration, the police officer had a reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.  The Court, therefore, affirmed, and the case will go back for trial.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion can be found here.

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