Could You Be Subjected to Heightened Scrutiny Simply by Being From a Marijuana-Friendly State?

The tide against marijuana criminalization has begun a more rapid turn — in fact, only 21 states (primarily those in the Southeast and Midwest) have not yet enacted or attempted to enact laws to legalize medical or recreational marijuana. However, those who travel in these regions with license plates or other identification from a marijuana-friendlier state may find themselves subjected to stricter police scrutiny than locals simply due to the difference in state laws. Read on to learn more about the prevalence of this type of profiling, as well as what you can do if you feel you’ve been unfairly targeted by the police due simply to your state of origin.
2003 Colorado License Plate

Is “legalized marijuana” profiling legal?

Unfortunately, although there have been several lawsuits brought on behalf of those who alleged unfair or discriminatory treatment while traveling through the Midwest with Colorado license plates, these lawsuits have either been dismissed without prejudice or have settled out of court without providing any precedent for others to follow. Because one’s state of origin is not a protected class in the same way race, sex, age, disability, or ethnicity is, it is not yet clear that this type of police profiling is per se illegal. On the other hand, police do need probable cause in order to stop or search any vehicle, so someone who is not committing any traffic violations or providing any other grounds on which probable cause could be based should not be stopped or searched because of their license plate alone.

However, the sheer number of individuals who have testified to this type of pattern or practice (or who were actually told by the stopping officer that out-of-state license plates were a particular focus for local law enforcement) indicate that this type of behavior is not uncommon. In fact, both Nebraska and Oklahoma’s state legislatures have attempted to challenge Colorado’s more relaxed marijuana laws, alleging that the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana has led more of this drug to begin flowing through their own state highways. Until there exists a federal court case that definitively decries state-of-origin profiling, it’s likely this pattern will continue.

What are your options if you feel you’ve been targeted by police on the basis of your state of origin?

Depending upon the circumstances of your police encounter and the egregiousness of the profiling you experienced, you may want to consider filing a civil lawsuit of your own.

However, if you’ve been cited or arrested on the basis of what you believe to be an unlawful stop, your best bet is often to defend against any charges brought against you. A criminal defense attorney with extensive knowledge of state and federal drug laws is your best bet for getting a case against you dropped. They can contest the charges on Fourth Amendment grounds, alleging that the police had no probable cause to conduct a traffic stop and therefore any evidence unearthed pursuant to this unlawful stop must be excluded. If you’re able to establish through testimony or physical evidence that the police officer pulled you over only because of your out-of-state plates, it’s likely any evidence the officer gleaned during this stop will be deemed inadmissible.

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