Can an officer pull over a vehicle for being on a “tow-in” list for unpaid parking tickets because he has been ordered to do so?
No, not unless there is some other criminal activity afoot.
The city of Dayton issued a directive that if officers encountered a vehicle that had two or more unpaid parking tickets assessed to it, they could stop and tow the vehicle. Following this directive, an officer ran the plates of a vehicle that Edward Dukes was a passenger in, discovered that it had three unpaid parking tickets assessed to it, and stopped the vehicle. Upon stopping the vehicle, the officer noticed that there were open containers of alcohol in it and removed both occupants. The officer went to remove the bottles and discovered a small bag of crack cocaine. Dukes was charged with possession.
The court held that the executive order was not a sufficient basis to stop a vehicle. It noted that parking tickets are civil infractions, not crimes and that the officer observed no criminal activity.
Why this case is important:
The officer here was doing exactly what he was required to do, but nonetheless violated the Constitution. As the court noted: “The protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment cannot be altered by means of an Executive Order issued to police department personnel.” In other words, although the officer was following his agency’s policy, the policy itself was unconstitutional.
Keep in mind:
The Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable government interference. It is a check against the power of the state. In this case, the officer had no reason to believe his stop was unlawful, as he was relying upon the validity of a directive from his agency. If you find yourself in such a situation, you should consider trying to develop an independent basis for reasonable suspicion to stop a suspect.
View the Ohio Second District Court of Appeals website
to view the entire opinion.