Question: If a peace officer observes a car with an out-of-state license plate proceeding down a private drive, does he have reasonable suspicion that the occupant is engaged in criminal activity?
Quick Answer: No, officers must be able to point to a specific offense that a person has committed, or is in the process of committing, prior to initiating a traffic stop.
Facts: Bret Browning got into his vehicle and drove down a private drive with no outlet. The officer thought the defendant’s car was suspicious because it was late at night, the car had out-of-state license plates, and the officer had never observed an out-of-state plate at any of the three private homes on the drive. The officer parked near the outlet of the private drive. About three minutes later, the driver exited the private drive, turned onto a state highway, and drove away without violating any traffic laws. Based on his observations, the officer followed and stopped Browning’s car.
Why this case is important: The court found that the officer’s observations did not constitute a sufficient basis for a valid stop of Browning’s vehicle. Even if the activities seemed suspicious, there was no reasonable suspicion that the driver was committing an offense.
Keep in mind: An investigatory traffic stop is justified only when police have specific and articulable facts that, when taken together with rational inferences, reasonably warrant that intrusion. An officer’s reliance upon a mere hunch is not sufficient to justify a stop. Browning was stopped essentially because the officer wanted to see what he was doing. There was no crime report and no suspicious activity in the area. The stop was unreasonable.