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  • Jim Chapman

No qualified immunity for officers who stopped car with obscured temporary tag

Author: Jim Chapman


In Clinton v. Garrett, 2022 WL 4362171 (8th Cir. Sept. 21, 2022), three Des Moines, Iowa, police officers stopped Jared Clinton’s car based upon the officers’ inability to read the temporary license plate tag in Clinton’s back window and based upon a “suspicious” look that one of Clinton’s passengers gave to one of the officers. The officers searched Clinton’s vehicle and found evidence of marijuana. Clinton was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance, but the State of Iowa did not pursue prosecution. Accordingly, Clinton filed a civil suit against the officers, asserting both State and federal claims against the officers. The relevant facts are as follows.

On October 3, 2019, Des Moines Police Officers Ryan Garrett, Brian Minnehan, and Ryan Steinkamp (who were riding together in Officer Garrett’s marked police car) stopped Clinton’s vehicle. According to Officers Garrett and Minnehan, as Clinton’s vehicle passed the patrol car, Clinton’s front-seat passenger sat up quickly from a reclined position, looked at the officers in an apparently nervous manner, and sat back down quickly. As a result, the officers began to follow Clinton’s vehicle. Additionally, the officers noted that Clinton’s car did not have permanent license plates. Instead, the plates on Clinton’s car advertised the dealership: “Dewey Auto Outlet.” Clinton’s car also had a valid temporary tag in the appropriate place in his vehicle’s rear window.

However, the officers were unable to “make out any writing” on the temporary tag from their position behind Clinton’s vehicle. Rather, the officers “observed that the vehicle had . . . dealer plates and a white piece of paper taped in the back window. [They] followed the vehicle for several blocks and could not make out any writing on it.” According to Officer Minnehan, “mostly it [was] the angle of the back windshield and then the glare from the sun” that made the tag unreadable. Officer Garrett similarly testified that he “could not have said” whether the tag “was blank or not blank” because “there was no way to tell” from where they were following Clinton’s vehicle. Officer Garrett further testified to having previously encountered forged tags because of the fact that paper tags are “easily altered.” Finally, Officer Steinkamp testified about his previous experiences with drivers placing counterfeit or blank documents in the windows of unregistered vehicles in order to mimic temporary registration tags.

Eventually, the officers “initiated a traffic stop . . . to verify that the paper tag was legitimate.” Notably, Officer Minnehan approached the vehicle and saw that Clinton’s temporary tag was legible and that it was not expired. Officer Garrett went to Clinton’s window, and he testified that “he immediately detected a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.” Officer Garrett asked whether the car was titled in Clinton’s name, and Clinton responded by asking Officer Garrett why he had been stopped. Officer Garrett replied: “I’m pulling you over because I was just checking up on your ID tag, OK?” Officer Steinkamp explained to Clinton that the police encounter “a lot of [temporary registration tags] that are fraudulent. We don’t know that until we verify it. That’s why we pulled you over.” Officer Minnehan told Clinton that he had been stopped because the officers could not “read [his] paper tag” from their vehicle. He also told Clinton that the officers’ attention had been piqued when his passenger “looked at [them] real hard, like [he was] super nervous.”

In addition to detecting the odor of marijuana, Officer Garrett saw what he believed to be evidence of marijuana on Clinton’s person. Clinton told the officers that he had been smoking marijuana in the same clothing earlier that day. Thereafter, the officers searched the car and its occupants and discovered a vape pen and a vape cartridge, both allegedly containing THC.

Accordingly, the officers arrested Clinton and charged him with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Iowa law. Clinton spent (approximately) four hours in the Polk County Jail. After Clinton filed a motion to suppress, the county prosecutor filed a notice of intent not to prosecute, and Clinton’s state law criminal case was dismissed without prejudice.

On May 18, 2020, Clinton filed suit in Iowa state court against the three officers who had stopped him and against other individuals, alleging violations of his federal and state law rights. For purposes of this article, the article will focus on Clinton’s allegations that the three officers who stopped him had violated his federal right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures that is protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although Clinton filed his lawsuit in state court, the officers timely removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

Thereafter, Clinton moved for partial summary judgment in the District Court as to all claims except for the amount of damages, and the officers filed a cross-motion for summary judgment based on federal qualified immunity and state-law immunity. The District Court granted Clinton’s motion for summary judgment on his claim that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights, and the District Court scheduled a jury trial on the amount of damages to be awarded to Clinton. The officers, then, appealed the District Court’s Order, arguing that the District Court committed reversible error in granting summary judgment in Clinton’s favor because they were immune from his suit based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity.

On the appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit disagreed with the officers and agreed with the District Court that the officers were not immune from Clinton’s Fourth Amendment claim against them based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity. In its Opinion, the Eighth Circuit explained that qualified immunity shields government officials from suit unless their conduct violates a clearly established constitutional or statutory right of which a reasonable person would have known. An officer is entitled to qualified immunity if two elements are met. First, the court asks, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right? Next, the court asks whether the right was clearly established.

The Eighth Circuit continued by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic stop is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, must be supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause. In determining whether reasonable suspicion exists, courts look at the “totality of the circumstances” of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting legal wrongdoing. In addition, courts allow officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training in order to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that might elude an untrained person. In determining whether the officer acted reasonably in such circumstances, due weight must be given, not to his inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch, but to the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience. An investigatory stop must be justified by some objective manifestation that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity.

The Eighth Circuit then noted that Iowa law mandates the display of both front and rear license plates. However, Iowa law affords an exception for a period of forty-five (45) days after the date of delivery of the vehicle to the purchaser from a dealer if a card bearing the words “registration applied for” is attached on the rear of the vehicle. Iowa law further requires that such temporary registration tag have plainly stamped or stenciled the registration number of the dealer from whom the vehicle was purchased and the date of delivery of the vehicle. Iowa law makes it a misdemeanor to operate a vehicle without either a valid permanent license plate or a valid temporary tag, and Iowa law also prohibits the falsification of a temporary tag.

To stop a driver for a suspected temporary-tag violation, police must have articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered. Despite the states’ vital interest in ensuring that only those qualified to drive are permitted to operate motor vehicles, that these vehicles are fit for safe operation, and that licensing, registration, and vehicle inspection requirements are being observed, the United States Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment does not permit random “spot checks. A determination that reasonable suspicion exists, however, need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.

In this appeal, the Eighth Circuit stated that it was undisputed that Clinton’s temporary tag complied with Iowa law. The issue was whether the officers had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Clinton was violating the law. The District Court found that they did not, reasoning that the inability to make out the tag did not constitute a particularized basis for believing that a motor vehicle was unregistered or that a temporary registration tag was falsified. The District Court based its conclusion on the distinction between the absence of information about the tag, i.e., the officers’ inability to see what was on the tag, and the presence of some information that pointed to the tag being fake. The District Court further observed that Officer Garrett had admitted to initiating the stop strictly because the officers “couldn’t see” what was on Clinton’s temporary tag and not because of a mistaken, affirmative belief that the tag was blank or fraudulent.

Based upon this evidence and the other evidence presented to the District Court, the Eighth Circuit found that the District Court did not err in concluding that there was not enough to justify a stop of Clinton’s car by the officers, i.e., that the officers were not protected from this suit based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity because the officers had violated Clinton’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure because the officers did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. Additionally, to the extent that any of the officers held a genuine belief that the tag was falsified, the Eighth Circuit concluded that such a belief was unreasonable under the circumstances because the officers observed what appeared to be a paper registration card as well as a dealer advertisement plate and a matching decal next to it. On these facts, the Eighth Circuit held that the natural and reasonable conclusion would have been that the car was a recent purchase and that its temporary tag was likely valid. Even combined with the fact that the stop occurred in an area known for criminal activity as well as a momentary display of nervousness on the part of a passenger, the Eighth Circuit opined that there was not enough to justify the stop of Clinton’s vehicle. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the officers violated Clinton’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In addition to this conclusion, the Eighth Circuit needed to determine whether that right was clearly established. For the right to be clearly established, the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. The burden falls on the party asserting qualified immunity to establish the relevant predicate facts. The Eighth Circuit noted that courts should not define clearly established law at a high level of generality. Rather, courts are to look for a controlling case or a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that Clinton’s Fourth Amendment right was clearly established when the officers stopped his car. The officers argued that there was no clearly established right to drive with a nervous passenger through a high crime neighborhood with a temporary tag that is unable to be read by officers following the vehicle. But the Eighth Circuit noted that it had already dismissed this argument to the extent that it relied upon Clinton’s nervous passenger and the area where he was driving. According to the Eighth Circuit, these facts, in isolation, did not support a conclusion that Clinton’s vehicle was connected to unlawful activity in general, much less to the specific kind of unlawful activity for which the officers pulled him over—a possible temporary tag violation. And, the Eighth Circuit stated that a driver cannot rightly be held responsible for ambient conditions that render a tag illegible.

In short, the Eighth Circuit opined that the authority was clear. Officers must have particularized facts that give rise to reasonable suspicion in order for a stop to be Constitutionally valid. The officers could not point to any positive indicator for their suspicion that Clinton’s tag was falsified. The few indicators that were present, e.g., Clinton’s dealership plates, pointed the opposite direction. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit held that it could not sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit found that the officers’ stop of Clinton’s vehicle constituted a violation of his clearly established Constitutional rights; that the District Court did not err in concluding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity; and that, because the stop constituted a violation of Clinton’s Fourth Amendment rights, the District Court did not err in granting summary judgment to Clinton.

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