Officer Stephanie Swartz received a request from the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) to initiate a stop of a particular vehicle. Spotting the vehicle’s temporary tags, Swartz believed the tags might be fraudulent and initiated a stop. The suspicious temporary plate was sufficient to create reasonable suspicion, and thus the stop, and the subsequent discovery of methamphetamine in the vehicle, was lawful
On December 21, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa, Officer Stephanie Swartz of the Des Moines Police Department was on patrol when she heard a radio request from agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) for local law enforcement to initiate a traffic stop of a black Volvo Sedan driven by Jose Francisco Garza Tovar, if possible.
Swartz spotted the Volvo and pulled to within fifteen to twenty feet of the vehicle, and noticed a temporary tag. Swartz would later recount that “[t]here was what appeared to be a paper tag up in the left-hand corner of the rear window, I was pretty confident that it wasn’t an Iowa tag, I couldn’t read the state of origin, and I had had two recent cases that I had dealt with within the past six months where people had either forged tags for themselves or bought fraudulent tags from other people to be displayed in the vehicle.” Swartz also added that the tag appeared as though it could have been made with a printer, that she could not identify the issuing state, and that the expiration date was handwritten in large block numbers, which she thought was odd as it would allow for unusually easy alteration of the expiration date.
While Iowa state law requires front and back license plate tags, it does allow for temporary identification tags for recently purchased vehicles and exempts out of state vehicles from compliance with Iowa law so long as the vehicle is properly tagged in its home state. Even so, Swartz was unsure of whether the vehicle was properly tagged and initiated a stop.
Swartz approached the vehicle driven by Tovar, which Mariano Valencia Mendoza was a passenger in. Swartz requested Tovar’s driver’s license, but Tovar replied he had no license. Swartz requested that the men step out of the vehicles and asked if there was anything in the vehicle which she should be “concerned about.” Tovar replied in the negative and told her to “go ahead and look.” While Swartz was issuing a citation for driving without a license, another officer arrived and conducted a search of the vehicle, finding methamphetamine. Tovar and Mendoza were both charged with possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine.
Before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, Tovar and Mendoza moved to suppress the evidence against them, arguing that Swartz’s seizure of the car had violated the Fourth Amendment. Their suppression motion was denied and both entered conditional guilty pleas which preserved their right to appeal denial of the suppression motion.
Tovar then appealed his conviction to the United States court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, arguing that his Fourth Amendment Rights were violated when Swartz initiated a stop. The court of appeals disagreed and upheld the conviction.
On review, the court of appeals noted that“[a]t the time of the traffic stop, Swartz observed what appeared to be a paper tag in the vehicle’s rear window. She was confident that it was not an Iowa temporary tag. Despite observing it from a distance of fifteen to twenty feet, she was unable to identify an issuing State. Her suspicions also were aroused by the large, handwritten block numbers. In her experience, dealers write expiration dates with a single stroke, and block numbers could be used to alter a date written in this manner. Given the tag’s overall appearance, Swartz thought it looked like something a person could have created on a printer. Considered in light of Swartz’s experience with falsified or fraudulent tags, these observations provided her with a particularized and objective basis to suspect that the tag was not a valid registration document. We therefore conclude that Swartz had reasonable suspicion to believe that the vehicle did not display valid proof of vehicle registration, as required by Iowa law.”
Tovar and Mendoza countered that because law enforcement officers generally would be unable to verify the authenticity of actual temporary plates without stopping a vehicle, the mere fact that an ordinary temporary plate could not be verified was not grounds for a stop. The court of appeals did not contest that assertion, but replied that in this case there was more than mere difficulty in observation. This was not a case of being simply unable to verify a tag; instead, Swartz was able to articulate several grounds upon which she believed this particular temporary plate was fraudulent. Rather than simply being unable to verify the authenticity of the plate without a stop, Swartz had actively analyzed the plate in question and suspected that it in particular might be a fraudulent tab.
Accordingly, the court of appeals upheld the convictions.
The cases, United States v. Tovar and United States v Mendoza, can be found here.