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. Constitution.
Justice Kennedy explained the rule traces back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio decision. The high court in Terry found 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.