Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Opinion Digests / Reasonable basis for vehicle stop dooms civil rights suit

Reasonable basis for vehicle stop dooms civil rights suit

Where a driver was operating his vehicle in violation of Virginia law, the officer had a reasonable basis to stop the vehicle and detain the driver for 14 minutes while running a license check.


Andrew Daulton, a Virginia state police officer, moves to dismiss Joseph Clark’s suit alleging that defendant violated plaintiff’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by (1) unreasonably seizing him and (2) continuing to detain him for 14 minutes even after defendant realized his traffic stop was a mistake.

Count One

There are three elements a plaintiff must establish to state a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: “(1) the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or a federal statute; (2) by a person; (3) acting under color of state law.” Plaintiff has not established the first element.

Virginia Code § 46.2- 711(F) states that “[n]o vehicles shall be operated on the highways in the Commonwealth without displaying the license plates required by this chapter.” Virginia Code § 46.2-715 provides that “[l]icense plates assigned to a motor vehicle … shall be attached to the front and the rear of the vehicle.” And Virginia Code § 46.2-716(A) provides that “[e]very license plate shall be securely fastened to the motor vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer to which it is assigned: 1. So as to prevent the plate from swinging, 2. In a position to be clearly visible, and 3. In a condition to be clearly legible.”

Plaintiff concedes his vehicle only had a “Michigan temporary tag” in the “upper back window” — not front or rear license plates. Defendant, in observing the lack of front or rear license plate on plaintiff’s vehicle, could have had a reasonable suspicion of “a violation of the applicable traffic laws.” So if it is “objectively reasonable for an officer in [defendant’s] position to think that [plaintiff violated Virginia law],” then there is “reasonable suspicion justifying the stop,” even if the officer was mistaken. Thus, Count One must be dismissed because there was no Constitutional violation.

Count Two

Count (2) asserts that defendant violated plaintiff’s rights by detaining plaintiff “even after [defendant] ‘realized’ he made a ‘mistake.’” “[T]he law has become well established that during a routine traffic stop, an officer may request a driver’s license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation.”

“With regard to duration, although the reasonable duration of a traffic stop ‘cannot be stated with mathematical precision,’ a stop may become ‘unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete [its] mission.’” Courts thus must consider “whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant.” The Fourth Circuit has approved of traffic stops that lasted longer than that which occurred here.

Qualified immunity

Without deciding if the continued stop was a violation of plaintiff’s right to be free from unreasonable detention after seizure, the court determines that plaintiff’s claim is barred by qualified immunity. The question is whether it is clearly established that it is a constitutional violation for an officer to detain the driver for 14 minutes and run a license check after the officer has determined the driver has not committed a traffic offense. No such precedent has been found or cited. Thus, the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.

Defendant’s motion to dismiss granted.

Clark v. Daulton, Case No. 6:22-cv-00062, Dec. 28, 2022. WDVA at Lynchburg (Moon). VLW 022-3-561. 7 pp.

VLW 022-3-561

Virginia Lawyers Weekly