The Ohio Supreme Court handed down a victory for law enforcement today
when it held that a police officer can lawfully stop and investigate a
vehicle whose paint color does not match the color listed on vehicle registration
records because the vehicle or its license plates may be stolen.
Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that while having
a color discrepancy between a vehicle and its registration is not a crime,
the officer’s experience with car thieves in the area switching
license plates gave him the “reasonable, articulable” suspicion
of criminal activity that justified stopping Hawkins.
Justice Michael P. Donnelly dissented, writing that there was no evidence that Heinz had any personal
experience or specialized training to support his belief that a color
discrepancy alone was enough to make an investigatory stop, and that he
did so on a “hunch,” which violated Hawkins’ right against
unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S.
Justice Kennedy explained the rule traces back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968
Terry v. Ohio decision. The high court in
police have the authority to make a forcible stop of a person when the
officer has “reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has
been, is, or is about to be engaged in criminal activity.”
Precisely defining “reasonable suspicion” is not possible,
the opinion stated, but “depends on a balance between the public
interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from
arbitrary interference by law officers.”
The level of suspicion required is less demanding than what is required
for probable cause but has to be more than a “hunch.”
It is determined by the
“totality of the circumstances” as viewed through the eyes
of a reasonable police officer who must react to events on the scene as
they unfold. Police can draw on their own experience and specialized training to make
inferences from and deductions about the information available to them,
the Court explained.
The opinion stated that reasonable suspicion
“need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct,” and that under
Terry, there is a risk that officers may stop innocent people.