Did I get pulled over because a cop was bored?
January 4, 2013 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Short version: In Colorado, is "the registered owner's license is expired" probable cause to pull someone over?

Long version: I live in Colorado. I was pulled over the other night and the officer explained that he pulled me over because "the registered owner of the vehicle had an expired license". There was no other mention of any actual violation. As the registered owner, and being in possession of a license expiring in 2014, I was surprised.

He eventually informed me that my license *may have been* revoked due to an unpaid ticket in New Mexico (that's also a surprise and a different matter), but that my license is indeed expired. He issued me a ticket and a court date, gave back my license, and let me go on the condition that my wife take over driving.

I'll be dealing with the expired license before the court date, but my question really is: is this all as sketchy as it feels to me? Did the officer have probable cause to pull me over? It was dark and he could probably tell there was a male driving and that the registered owner was likely male based on name, but again - no mention of any actual traffic violation.
posted by Perthuz to Law & Government (15 answers total)
Did he tell you this when he pulled you over, or after he ran your license?
posted by DoubleLune at 7:12 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: Police officers run cars' license plates regularly, trolling for violations of any sort. Any flag or irregularity can be used as cause for pulling the car over. Like the registered owner having an expired license.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:19 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IANALY, and I know nothing of Colorado law and _very_ little about criminal procedure, but this does seem reasonable to me. Bored cops run checks on license plates all the time, and if something fishy comes up (car reported stolen, tabs not renewed, etc), they are allowed to pull the car over.

What I am curious about is how your license can be "expired" if you hold in your wallet a piece of plastic with a 2014 expiry date on it. There are other ways that your license can be invalid, even if not expired (revocation is one, in MN they use the terms cancellation or suspension), and all of these little words mean different things, as far as your right to drive, and how bad it is if you continue you drive with your license in that state. So, it's important for you to figure out exactly what is up with your license ASAP.

And you didn't ask this in your question, but depending on how bad the ticket is, and whether you'll get your license reinstated quickly or not, you may want to look into talking to a Colorado licensed lawyer about why your license was in a problematic state without your knowledge to begin with.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:20 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: Was the other night New Year's Eve or New Year's Day? Cause lots if people get pulled over for all sorts of reasons on that day.

If the officer doesn't like something you did in traffic they may run the plate quickly and if anything comes back amiss (expired license, previous DUI, etc) they'll pull you over in the hopes of getting a couple tickets out of it.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:21 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: Driving on an expired licence is a traffic violation. He ran the plates, and saw it (it's happened to me). Deal with Expired License, bring it into court, explain your situation (I did not know it was expired/suspended), show that you've dealt with it and hope they throw the ticket out / lower it.
posted by pyro979 at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: Probable cause is not the standard for a traffic stop, it's reasonable suspicion. Probable cause is the standard for an arrest. It's reasonable for him to suspect that the operator of the vehicle is the registered owner of the vehicle. A quick search reveals that a challenge of this has worked at the trial level, but, upon appeal, it doesn't look like it holds up. This New Hampshire case seems typical.

Bottom line, even if it's not fair that your license was suspended, it's not the officer's fault for pulling you over based on the information that he had. Your beef is with New Mexico and Colorado for not warning you that this was an issue.

Of course, I'm not a lawyer and if you seek legal advice
posted by inturnaround at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

About twelve years ago my friend and I were pulled over in the middle of the night, just outside of Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. The officer said that our van was registered as "mint green", but he thought it was more of a blue color. I was driving (it was my friends van, she was sleeping in the back) and was terrified. Two women, alone in the middle of the desert, getting pulled over in the middle of the night. I woke up my friend and she came up front to talk with the officer - "no, sir, the van really is green. Mint green. Look at it under the light!". The officer shined his flashlight into the windows, inspected the color of the van closely, asked us about where we were going several times, asked us if our parents knew where we were (we were in our early 20's), and finally let us go after what seemed like an eternity. We were completely baffled by the whole incident.

Our theory was that he was bored with patrolling a desolate stretch of highway, ran our plates, and found the tiniest nitpicky thing to pull us over about. He clearly thought that there may have been something more going on (contraband, etc). My guess is that your trooper was bored and looking for something to do as well.

posted by Elly Vortex at 7:54 AM on January 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all! Fair enough, I think the sketchiest thing to me was that he gave me my license back - maybe he was doing me a favor.

I'm going to take Pyro's advice here and deal with the license, then throw myself on the mercy of the court.
posted by Perthuz at 7:58 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wait, you have a Colorado driver's license that says it's good until 2014, but you were pulled over in Colorado by a Colorado police officer who said that it is expired?
posted by rhizome at 9:53 AM on January 4, 2013

Is there really an unpaid ticket in New Mexico? That might be the underlying cause of this hassle, and if unresolved, might cause future hassles.
posted by Cranberry at 9:58 AM on January 4, 2013

In my state, many of the local jurisdictions have readers on their police cars that automatically check every car they drive past, both ways, and all parked cars. He probably had a reader on his car. Some sit at busy intersections or busy stretches of road and wait for the gizmo to light up so they can pull the culprit over. Used a lot for finding stolen cars. The readers will find a car parked whose plate is in the system as stolen if it is turned on as the cop car passes it. They look like boxes and are usually mounted on the trunk facing at about a 45 degree angle towards the front of the car.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:11 AM on January 4, 2013

Response by poster: Rhizome: Yea that's about right.

Cranberry: Sorry, I could have been clearer on that. I did get a speeding ticket driving through NM several years ago but it was paid. The fact that the officer said it may be related gives me pause. I'm looking into that.
posted by Perthuz at 11:11 AM on January 4, 2013

Well that's just weird. Have you called the motor vehicle department to confirm? Do you know the officer's name?
posted by rhizome at 1:13 PM on January 4, 2013

A friend of mine had his license revoked or suspended (on paper anyway) over an out-of-state speeding ticket--somehow a ticket for 35 in a 25 turned into a ticket for 90 in a 25 by the time the record of it made its way from Nevada. I want to say he figured this out by Minnesota sending him a letter, not by being pulled over. In any case, it was a minor hassle to sort out, mostly because whatever random county in Nevada claimed they didn't have a fax machine or something, but he got it sorted relatively quickly. Apparently this happens often enough that the DMV didn't think he was lying when he called them totally confused and told him what papers he'd have to get to sort it out.

I tell you this story to let you know that dumb paperwork snafus happen. I suppose the wise person would photocopy any tickets they pay, but who thinks to do that? (I suppose there's a chance your bank scanned the check (and retained the copy still), assuming a) there was a fine and b) you paid by check from your current bank.)
posted by hoyland at 1:27 PM on January 4, 2013

Here's what happened to me. I was in Illinois, but I had a Wisconsin driver's license, which was not on my person. I was caught up in a sobriety checkpoint where they pull over every third vehicle or whatever. Since I did not have my Wisconsin license on me at the time, I actually had to get someone to come get me, and they gave me a citation for driving without a valid license, which I proceeded to ignore. Some time later I received a letter from the state telling me that as I had not produced proof of insurance, I was being fined some ridiculous amount and had to get proof to the DMV or my license would be suspended. Foolishly, I let this happen as well. Now, I had a valid Wisconsin license, and there was no insurance requirement at the time in Wisconsin. But by violating Illinois law they felt they had to suspend my driving privileges in Illinois, so they created an Illinois license number for me and suspended THAT.

Now, with state-to-state bilateral reciprocity in many cases, you can easily find your $STATE license suspended in harmony with $OTHERSTATE license. I don't know if this happened to you, but I hope it's easier for you to straighten out than my mess.

Did the officer have probable cause to pull me over?

As noted, this is not the standard. There is no right to drive a vehicle on the public way; it is a privilege. As an enforcement mechanism in the interest of public safety officers have a lot of leeway in pulling cars over. As a practical matter, there is a lot of commonality between "vehicles with minor noticeable problems" such as a broken taillight and "vehicles being driven by people who have other legal issues" like open warrants. The more sadistic will use various anomalies of the public way such as confusing signage to get citation after citation (I once got a ticket for missing a no turn on red sign that was well nigh invisible behind an "L" support structure -- a location probably responsible for hundreds of collars a year). It happens.

I think the sketchiest thing to me was that he gave me my license back

Keeping the license is a policy thing that probably applies only to certain citations. An administrative suspension or revocation probably requires him to keep it, but an expiration may not.
posted by dhartung at 10:19 PM on January 4, 2013

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