A divided Florida Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of a man who was found to have cocaine and marijuana after a police officer pulled him over based on the color of his car.
The case stemmed from an Escambia County sheriff’s deputy in June 2010 running the license tag number on a bright green Chevrolet through a state database. The database indicated the car had been registered as being the color blue, an inconsistency that led the deputy to pull over the car.
During the stop, the deputy noticed the smell of marijuana, leading to a search of the car that turned up marijuana, crack cocaine and cash.
The driver of the car, Kerrick Teamer, was later convicted of trafficking in cocaine, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Teamer sought to suppress the drug evidence, arguing it was the result of an illegal, warrant-less search.
The 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Teamer, and the Supreme Court in a 5-2 ruling agreed that the evidence should have been suppressed.
The majority said changing the color of a car is not “inherently suspicious” enough to justify a stop by police and that it is not illegal to repaint a vehicle without notifying the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
“The law allows officers to draw rational inferences, but to find reasonable suspicion based on this single noncriminal factor would be to license investigatory stops on nothing more than an officer’s hunch,’’ said the majority opinion, written by Justice Peggy Quince and joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James E.C. Perry. “Doing so would be akin to finding reasonable suspicion for an officer to stop an individual for walking in a sparsely occupied area after midnight simply because that officer testified that, in his experience, people who walk in such areas after midnight tend to commit robberies.”
But Justice Charles Canady, in a dissent joined by Justice Ricky Polston, wrote that a “reasonable officer” could have suspected that the license tag had been illegally transferred from another car. “The majority is wholly unjustified in categorizing an undeniably objective factor as a hunch,” Canady wrote.