1/4/2013Florida: Changing Car Color Does Not Justify Traffic Stop
Florida Court of Appeal rules repainted cars should not be automatically subject to traffic stops.
Courts in Florida are now split on the question of whether motorists should be subjected to stop and search simply because they repainted their car in a new color. Last year, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said yes, they should be stopped. On December 21, the First District Court of Appeal came to the opposite conclusion.
This became an issue on June 22, 2010 when an Escambia County Deputy Sheriff saw a bright green Chevy. The deputy ran the plate and the record showed the vehicle was registered to a blue Chevy. The deputy initiated a traffic stop, and Kerick Van Teamer, the driver, explained his car had recently been painted. A search turned up drugs leading to Teamer's arrest. Teamer sought to suppress the evidence because he never should have been pulled over in the first place.
The sole issue before the court was whether a traffic stop can be based on a mismatch between a car's color and what is listed on the vehicle registration. Prosecutors argued the difference in color should be investigated as potential illegal activity of making a false statement on a vehicle registration. The First District judges agreed the discrepancy raises potential for concern, but they did not agree it would be enough to justify a stop.
"Changing the color of a vehicle is not illegal, and the state does not require an owner to report the change in color to the DHSMV [Department of Highway Safety, Motor Vehicles Division]," Judge James R. Wolf wrote for the three-judge panel. "The question then is what degree of suspicion attaches to this particular noncriminal act?"
Aside from three cases, the First District judges found most court decisions it reviewed from around the country did not believe a color mismatch on its own justified a stop. The First District suggested this is the same situation as a motorist driving with a temporary license plate tag. Though it is possible such tags could be expired, that would amount to no more than a hunch. The matter is complicated further because the state has no form a driver can use to report a change in vehicle color.
"If we accept the state's argument, every person who changes the color of their vehicle is continually and perpetually subject to an investigatory stop so long as the color inconsistency persists, regardless of any other circumstances," Wolf concluded. "The record does not contain any data regarding the prevalence of repainted vehicles registered in the state, but we are hesitant to license an investigatory stop of every person driving a vehicle with an inconsistent color. In the absence of other suspicious behaviors or circumstances, the decision of which inconsistent vehicles to stop would be left wholly to the discretion of the officer."
As a result, charges against Teamer will be dropped. A copy of the decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.