Unreliable Police Computers Are Defense to DUI Stops

Tenth Circuit Holds that the Lack of Vehicle Record May Not Provide a Sufficient Basis for a Traffic Stop if the Database is Unreliable.

On Friday, August 2, 2013, the Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in United States v. Esquival-Rios.

The Court notes:

Garbage in, garbage out.  Everyone knows that much about computers: you give them bad data, they give you bad results. There was a time when the enforcement of traffic laws depended on officers lying in wait behind billboards watching cars flow past. Today, officers rely on distant computer databases accessed remotely from their dashboards, stopping passersby when the computer instructs. But what if the computer turns out to be a good deal less reliable than the officer’s eagle eye? What if the computer suggests you’ve broken the law only because of bad data – garbage in, garbage out? (Slip op. at 1-2)

In this case, a Kansas State Trooper made a traffic stop of a Colorado motorist after the trooper’s requested verification of the temporary Colorado tags resulted in no return on the record.  However, the dispatcher warned the officer that “Colorado temp tags usually don’t return.”  The trooper stopped the motorist anyway and a subsequent search resulted in the driver’s conviction on federal drug charges.

At the trial court level, the judge denied Defendant’s motion to suppress the results of the traffic stop, ruling that the officer had “reasonable suspicion” to believe that the temporary tag was forged.

The Tenth Circuit, on appeal, reversed the trial court and sent the case back for findings on the reliability of the database.  In the event the database is determined to be unreliable, the remedy would be to exclude the evidence resulting from the unconstitutional stop.

The appellate court distinguished this case from an earlier decision in which it ruled that the Defendant’s mere assertion that a database was unreliable was not enough to trigger an inquiry. Here, the nature of the information (the lack of a record), combined with the dispatcher’s comment to the trooper and the lack of any corroborating circumstances, was sufficient to meet the Defendant’s threshold burden of showing that the database might indeed be unreliable.

In the meantime, Colorado motorists using temporary license tags may want to be aware that they may be targets for future stops outside the state due to the same incomplete database.

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