Court Rules that Cops Can’t Search Motorists Based on State Residency

On Tuesday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that law enforcement officers cannot stop and search vehicles belonging to motorists with out-of-state license plates that have legalized marijuana.

The ruling comes after a civil lawsuit filed by Peter Vasquez against two Kansas Highway Patrol officers. Vasquez, who was driving alone on I-70 at night, was pulled over by officers in December 2011 on the basis of his license plates and Colorado being a known “drug source.”

By a 2-1 vote, the court ruled that the officers had violated Vasquez’s Fourth Amendment rights by stopping and searching his car, adding that the officers’ reasoning would justify the search of citizens from more than half the states in the country.

“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,” Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero wrote.

“Absent a demonstrated extraordinary circumstance, the continued use of state residency as a justification for the fact of or continuation of a stop is impermissible,” he added.

The 10th Circuit decision applies in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming.

This isn’t the first time that a neighboring state has taken umbrage at Colorado’s marijuana laws. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied a lawsuit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado. The suit cited the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), saying that marijuana can’t be regulated at the state level. Additionally, the two states claimed that marijuana purchased in Colorado and brought over state lines was a burden on law enforcement and their criminal justice systems, as well as a danger to the health and safety of children.

By a 6-2 majority, the Supreme Court declined to hear the suit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado. Two conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said they would have heard the case.