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Florida Supreme Court rules color is no reason to stop a car

In recent years, criminal defense attorneys have argued the defense of "profiling," in which a law enforcement officer stops a suspect based upon the officer’s feeling or intuition that the suspect was in a place or situation that would be unusual for that person.

Some prominent examples have involved black defendants who were in a predominantly white neighborhood or driving an expensive car in a low-rent public housing area. But a recent Florida Supreme Court case has extended the profiling defense to the color of automobiles. 

The ruling originated in a case four years ago, when a man was arrested after a police officer noticed a car that was colored bright green. Apparently finding the color unusual, the officer checked the database for the license plates of the car. When the plates were identified as being registered to a blue car, the officer stopped the vehicle to investigate whether the car might be stolen.

The man driving the car explained that it had recently been painted. But during the course of the stop, the officer noticed what he believed was the odor of marijuana smoke. The driver was arrested and eventually convicted based on the illegal drug offenses. He appealed the conviction until the matter eventually reached the Florida Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court acknowledged that the difference in paint color of a car might create what it called an "ambiguity" citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. An officer may stop someone to resolve what he or she sees as an ambiguous situation that could raise suspicion of illegal activity.

But the court decided that a color discrepancy by itself is not enough of an ambiguity to warrant a traffic stop, leaving the marijuana evidence inadmissible and overturning the conviction of the suspect.

While the ruling does not seem to say that police may not use their intuition as a reason to stop someone for seemingly suspicious behavior, it does indicate that “profiling” based on the color of a car alone is not sufficient to justify the stop.

Given this new ruling, criminal defense attorneys may be able to use those arguments to mitigate any charges or, as in this case, take the case to a higher authority that could eventually result in dismissal of the charges. 

Source: TheNewspaper, "Florida Supreme Court Rejects Traffic Stop Based On Color," July 9, 2014

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