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Recent case highlights issue of probable cause

By Sue Voyles | December 16, 2020 |

A recent case known as “People vs. Collins” has brought up an important issue as it relates to probable cause for law enforcement when stopping a motor vehicle. Because of the lesson learned, the team of experts at Bennett & Demopoulos believe this is a case worthy of looking at more closely.

In “People vs. Collins,” Detroit police officers had stopped defendant Joseph Collins’s vehicle when their scout-car computer reported that his vehicle was uninsured. An inventory search of the vehicle yielded a loaded firearm in Collins’s bookbag. But the license plate number fed into the computer did not match that of Collins’s car.

The circuit court determined that the officers had “randomly” run a plate number, characterized the stop as “pretextual,” and suppressed evidence of the gun. The prosecutor contended that the circuit court improperly focused on the officers’ subjective intent rather than the totality of the circumstances.

You can read the whole case here, but there are a few important details to keep in mind:

If the database in a police cruiser states the vehicle is uninsured, that is a lawful basis for a stop, in this case where the police eventually found a gun. However, in this case, the court did not believe that the officer actually checked the insurance status of the vehicle before the stop.

In other words, the court believed the officer lied about running an insurance check, and that the alleged insurance check was a non-existing pretext for the stop. Because the license plate number in the computer did not match that of Collins’s car, it made it seem as though the officer didn’t actually run the defendant’s plate at all.

The lesson here? Police should have run the car for insurance first. Then they would have had a lawful stop.

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