New York’s Highest Court Rules Analysis of License Plate in DMV Database Without Reasonable Suspicion Does Not Constitute an Unlawful Search

In a recent New York court opinion, the court analyzed whether a police officer can enter a license plate into a government database to check for any suspensions, outstanding violations, and the registration of the vehicle without first developing any suspicion that the vehicle was engaged in criminal activity. More specifically, the court ruled that this review of the license plate information does not constitute a search.  Given the fact that many modern police cars are equipped with license plate readers and fixed license plate readers are becoming more commonplace, the issue is of paramount importance.

The facts of the case that gave rise to this opinion are as follows. In 2014, a police officer saw a vehicle drive past him. The vehicle was operated by the defendant. During the eventual trial on the matter, the officer stated that he did not see the vehicle engaging in any traffic violations or otherwise erratic behaviors. The police officer entered the vehicle’s license plate into his computer system, which was linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The analysis indicated that the registration for the vehicle was suspended due to outstanding parking tickets. The officer then initiated a stop of the vehicle. During that stop, the officer conducted a database search of the defendant’s driver’s license and discovered that his license was also suspended. Ultimately, the officer initiated an arrest of the defendant for driving while intoxicated as well as for operating a vehicle with a suspended license and registration.

The defendant promptly filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop of the vehicle and the subsequent search were unlawful because the officer conducted an impermissible search when entering the vehicle’s license plate number into the database. According to the defendant, the officer lacked any basis for running the license plate, and he argued that an officer must have probable cause to conduct a database search of a license plate.

The prosecution refuted the defendant’s position, claiming that an officer does not need to have probable cause before running a license plate through the database and that such an act does not constitute a search. The lower court ruled in favor of the defendant, finding that the officer lacked any cause to run the license plate and that there was no reasonable suspicion to warrant his stop of the vehicle. It dismissed the charges. The intermediate appellate court reversed, finding that the database search and the subsequent vehicle stop were lawful.

On appeal to the highest state court in New York, the court first discussed the longstanding rule regarding expectations of privacy and searches. The Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures have been interpreted as applying to situations in which the individual asserting a privacy right can demonstrate a subjective expectation of privacy and in which society at large would deem that expectation reasonable. Based on this conception, the high court framed the issue as whether a motorist has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information resulting from a DMV database that is accessible to law enforcement officers when operating the vehicle on a public roadway. The court ruled that such an expectation of privacy in this instance would be unreasonable and cited to New York traffic laws suggesting that the purpose of the registration is to help identify the owner of a vehicle.

Finally, regarding whether running the license plate through the database constitutes a search, the court cited to precedent from every federal circuit concluding that such an act does not constitute a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the high court affirmed the intermediate court’s ruling and rejected the defendant’s arguments.

If you are facing criminal charges or a criminal investigation, the dedicated New York criminal defense attorneys at Tilem & Associates are prepared to help you protect your rights. Our seasoned team of legal professionals understands just how stressful this situation is for you and your family, and we will stand by you through each phase of the legal process. We handle a wide variety of criminal defense matters, including assault and battery, firearms cases, DWI, and Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle. To schedule your free consultation, call us now at 877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.

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