Supreme Court to decide whether officers may routinely check license plates

The United States Supreme Court will decide whether a police officer must have reasonable suspicion to check the registration on a vehicle.  The Court agreed to review a case reported in 2006 in Xiphos, United States v. Ellison.  An officer saw Ellison’s van parked at a shopping mall.  Believing (incorrectly) that the van was unlawfully parked, the officer ran the plate and discovered a felony warrant for the registered owner.  The officer called for backup as the van drove away.  When the backup officer arrived, the officer stopped the van.  Ellison, a passenger, was arrested on the warrant.  In the search incident to the arrest, officers found a firearm and Ellison was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Ellison claimed that the stop was unlawful because there was no basis to perform a registration check which revealed the active warrant.

The district court agreed with Ellison and suppressed the gun.  The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that there is no expectation of privacy in a license plate number visible to the public.  Almost every other court to consider this issue has reached the same conclusion.  Hallstein v. City of Hermosa Beach, 87 Fed.Appx. 17 (9th Cir. 2003); United States v. Batten, 73 Fed.Appx. 831 (6th Cir. 2003);United States v. Sparks, 37 Fed.Appx. 826 (8th Cir. 2002); Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston, 185 F.3d 521 (5th Cir. 1999); United States v. Walraven, 892 F.2d 972 (10th Cir. 1989); United States v. Matthews, 615 F.2d 1279 (10th Cir. 1980).   United States v. Ellison, 462 F.3d 557 (6th Cir. 2006).  The Supreme Court will consider the case in its new term, beginning on the first Monday in October 2007.

About the author

Ken Wallentine is Vice President and Senior Legal Advisor of Lexipol LLC (, the nation’s leading provider of risk management policies and resources for public safety agencies. He is a retired chief and former prosecutor with over three decades of public service.

Contact Ken Wallentine

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