The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Vasquez v. Lewis on Tuesday, August 23, 2016.
Peter Vasquez was driving eastbound on I-70 through Kansas at 2 a.m., traveling from Colorado to Maryland. Officer Lewis and Officer Jimerson could not read Vasquez’s temporary tag through his car’s tinted windows so they initiated a traffic stop. Jimerson observed blankets and a pillow in the front passenger seat and back seat of the car as he approached, and assumed something was obscured by the blankets in the back seat. Vasquez responded that there was no one else in the car. Jimerson took Vasquez’s license and proof of insurance and returned to the patrol car, where he told Lewis that Vasquez appeared nervous. Jimerson sent Lewis to gauge Vasquez’s nervousness and “get a feel for him.” Upon his return, Lewis responded that Vasquez looked “scared to death.” Jimerson checked the insurance and discovered that Vasquez had insurance for two newer vehicles. Suspecting that Vasquez was transporting illegal drugs, Jimerson called for a drug sniffing dog.
Lewis returned to Vasquez’s vehicle and asked where he worked, why he wasn’t driving the newer car, and why he didn’t have more belongings in his vehicle if he was moving. Eventually, Lewis issued a warning and started to walk away, then walked back and asked Vasquez if he could ask a few more questions. Lewis asked Vasquez if there were any illegal drugs in the vehicle, which Vasquez denied. Lewis then asked to search the vehicle but Vasquez refused. After he refused, Lewis detained Vasquez and searched the vehicle, aided by the drug dog. The search revealed nothing illegal.
Vasquez brought suit against the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing they violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him and searching his car without reasonable suspicion. The district court initially denied the officers’ motion to dismiss, but after discovery, it granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, holding that Vasquez could not show the officers violated a clearly established right. Vasquez timely appealed.
The Tenth Circuit remarked that it has repeatedly admonished that once an officer establishes a temporary tag is valid, the officer should explain the reason for the initial stop and let the motorist continue on his or her way. The officers argue their extended seizure was justified by reasons other than the temporary tag. The Tenth Circuit considered only whether the search and dog sniff were valid based on Vasquez’s challenge.
The officers contended their suspicions were valid because Vasquez was driving alone late at night; he was driving from Colorado, a “drug source area”; he was driving on I-70, a “known drug corridor”; he did not have enough items in his car to support his assertion that he was moving; the items in the backseat were obscured from view; he had a blanket and pillow in his car; he was driving an older car despite owning a newer one; there were fresh fingerprints on his trunk; and he seemed nervous. The Tenth Circuit was troubled by the officers’ justification that because Vasquez was from Colorado it should establish reasonable suspicion. The Tenth Circuit strongly cautioned that
It is wholly improper to assume that an individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal conduct because of his state of residence, and thus any fact that would inculpate every resident of a state cannot support reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, it is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate.
The Tenth Circuit continued that the continued use of state of residence as justification is impermissible.
The Tenth Circuit also found that nervousness could not be used as justification, and found that the officers’ reasoning was contradictory at points. The Tenth Circuit similarly disregarded the argument that because Vasquez was driving on I-70 there should be suspicion, noting it would be suspicious if he were driving from Colorado to Maryland and not using I-70. The Tenth Circuit concluded the officers violated Vasquez’s constitutional rights by searching his car.
Turning to whether the right to be free of unconstitutional searches was clearly established at the time of the incident, the Tenth Circuit found precedent to support that it was. In fact, the Tenth Circuit found that the same officer, Officer Jimerson, was the subject of a strikingly similar case in which the Tenth Circuit found no reasonable suspicion for the driver’s detention.
The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. Judge McHugh dissented; he would not have found a constitutional violation and would have distinguished the other case involving Officer Jimerson.