Court: Expired tabs good enough reason for drunk driving arrest

You’ve stopped at a stop light when a police officer pulls up behind you and notices your license tabs, while current, don’t match his computer which reports your car’s registration expired two years ago. He pulls you over and confirms your car is legally registered, but also notices you smell of booze and look drunk. Can you be arrested?

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today said “yes,” ruling that pulling a driver over in Sartell in January 2010 was a legal stop, even though it was based on bad information.

It ruled in the case of Shaun Cox, who was driving with nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol and who was unsuccessful getting that fact suppressed at his district court trial.

“The stop cannot be ‘the product of mere whim, caprice or idle curiosity,'” the court said, in ruling it wasn’t. “When a license plate displays 2010 tabs, but a computer check indicates that the vehicle’s registration expired in 2008, it is objectively reasonable for an officer to infer that the 2010 tabs may have been stolen.”

Mr. Cox argued that once the officer’s curiosity about the expired tabs was satisfied, the “investigation” could not be broadened to include his possible drinking.

The court hinted that Cox would be correct if the officer were only concerned about expired tabs…

But as we have noted, the basis for the officer’s stop was his suspicion of stolen tabs. This suspicion would not have been dispelled based solely on the observation of current tabs. As a result, the officer properly approached the vehicle to talk with Cox about the discrepancy. Because Officer Thompson immediately observed signs of Cox’s intoxication when he approached him to inquire about the tabs, we conclude that Officer Thompson lawfully developed additional reasonable suspicion that supported the expanded scope of the initial stop.

Here’s the full opinion from the Court of Appeals.