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Court says police can run license plates without suspicion of wrongdoing

ALBANY – Police can routinely run license plate checks of motorists even if they have no suspicion that any wrongdoing has been committed, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.

In a case involving a 2014 stop of a motorist by a SUNY Buffalo State police officer in 2014, the Court of Appeals rejected an initial Buffalo City Court ruling that dismissed a driving while intoxicated arrest against a motorist pulled over in the circular driveway into the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

“To ensure the safety of our roads, a police officer may run a license plate number through a government database to check for any outstanding violations or suspensions on the registration of the vehicle. We hold that such a check, even without any suspicion of wrongdoing, is permissible, and does not constitute a search,’’ Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote in the 6-0 decision upholding the charges against motorist Andrew Bushey.

Early in the morning of Aug. 10, 2014, Bushey made a mistaken, though legal, turn into the museum’s driveway. Parked nearby was a SUNY Buffalo State police car. The officer ran the car’s plate even though “he did not observe any violations” of traffic laws “nor was the defendant’s driver erratic or unusual in any way,’’ the court wrote in its decision.

The computer check found that the vehicle’s registration and Bushey’s license had been suspended. The officer followed Bushey and then pulled him over nearby. Bushey was arrested for DWI and aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle after he failed a field sobriety test.

The case was later thrown out by a Buffalo City Court judge who determined the stop was unlawful because the officer had not observed any traffic violations. That decision was overturned by an Erie County judge. The Court of Appeals Thursday upheld that county court ruling.

The defendant argued the officer had no legal basis for running the license plate of his vehicle because it is covered by “the same probable cause standard for stopping a person driving a vehicle,’’ DiFiore wrote in today’s decision.

“The question we must answer here is whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information provided to the DMV concerning his or her registration of a vehicle operated on a public roadway, which is accessible to police officers through the DMV database,’’ the judge wrote.

While the state’s highest court has not addressed the specific issue before, the judge wrote that numerous federal courts have ruled that license plate checks do not amount to a search of an individual. Because license plates are meant to speed the identification of a vehicle’s registered owner, “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy” in the information a police officer may pull up from the DMV during a plate check.

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