United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo, No. 14–2753

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtHamilton, Circuit Judge.
Citation827 F.3d 663
PartiesUnited States of America, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Alexis Miranda–Sotolongo, Defendant–Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 14–2753
Decision Date28 June 2016

827 F.3d 663

United States of America, Plaintiff–Appellee
v.
Alexis Miranda–Sotolongo, Defendant–Appellant.

No. 14–2753

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

Argued April 20, 2015
Decided June 28, 2016


Jason M. Bohm, Urbana, IL, John H. Campbell, Peoria, IL, Office of the United States Attorney, for Plaintiff–Appellee.

Johanna M. Christiansen, Thomas W. Patton, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Peoria, IL, for Defendant–Appellant.

Before Wood, Chief Judge, Hamilton, Circuit Judge, and Darrah, District Judge.*

Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

Defendant Alexis Miranda–Sotolongo challenges both his conviction and his sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). First, he argues that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the guns used to convict him, contending that the police lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop that led to the discovery of the guns. We affirm the denial of the motion to suppress. The officer based the stop on the fact that the number on the defendant's car's temporary registration tag did not appear in the relevant law enforcement database. That discrepancy gave the officer a reasonable suspicion that the car was either stolen or otherwise not properly registered.

827 F.3d 666

Second, the defendant argues that several special conditions of supervised release are too vague and not justified. Although he did not raise these challenges in the district court and the conditions had often been imposed without controversy, recent decisions from this court require us to remand this case for reconsideration of those conditions of supervised release.

I. Fourth Amendment Challenge to the Traffic Stop

Miranda–Sotolongo's encounter with the police began on Labor Day, Monday, September 2, 2013, when Officer Jared Johnson spotted him driving a white Cadillac on an interstate highway in Bloomington, Illinois. Miranda–Sotolongo had not been speeding, swerving, or committing any moving violation. What caught Officer Johnson's attention was an Indiana temporary vehicle registration tag that looked odd. He testified that this tag was unlike any Indiana registration tag he had seen before and that in his experience temporary Indiana tags were normally “in the back of a window, not a piece of paper where the license plate normally goes.”

Officer Johnson decided to check the registration number in the relevant database. When first his own check and then a dispatcher's separate check of the database found no record of the registration, Johnson made a traffic stop to investigate whether the tag might be a forgery designed to hide a stolen or otherwise unregistered vehicle. When Officer Johnson asked Miranda–Sotolongo for his license, he admitted that he was driving on a suspended license. The officer arrested him. During a later inventory search, the police discovered the two guns that led to defendant's conviction.

Miranda–Sotolongo argues on appeal that the initial stop violated the Fourth Amendment and that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress the guns as evidence. We review the district court's factual findings for clear error and review de novo whether the stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. Uribe , 709 F.3d 646, 649 (7th Cir. 2013). A traffic stop is reasonable when the officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, see id. at 649–50, citing Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 21–22, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), which can extend to violations of traffic laws, as Uribe makes clear. See also Rodriguez v. United States , 575 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614, 191 L.Ed.2d 492 (2015) (routine traffic stop is more analogous to Terry stop than to formal arrest); Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) (reasonable suspicion that driver is breaking traffic law can justify traffic stop).

Reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch. The officer must be able to identify some “particularized and objective basis” for thinking that the person to be stopped is or may be about to engage in unlawful activity. United States v. Cortez , 449 U.S. 411, 417, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981). The Fourth Amendment requires an officer making a stop to point to “specific and articulable facts” that suggest unlawful conduct. See Uribe , 709 F.3d at 650, quoting Terry , 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. 1868.

The factual basis for the stop identified by the officer here—and the one relied upon by the government and the district court—is that Miranda–Sotolongo's vehicle registration did not appear in the law enforcement database. The district court reasoned that because the officer was unable to verify that the car was registered, he had a reasonable suspicion that the temporary tag was a forgery designed to mask an unregistered or stolen car.

827 F.3d 667

Before we address that basis for the officer's suspicion, we first consider Miranda–Sotolongo's argument that the government was not entitled to rely at all on the database information to justify the stop. He argues that the actual reason he was pulled over was only the officer's mistaken belief that placing a temporary paper registration tag in the normal license-plate holder violated Indiana law. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that, in his experience, temporary Indiana registration tags were normally “in the back of a window, not a piece of paper where the license plate normally goes.” This suspicion that there was something strange about this particular tag led the officer to check the database to verify it.

Although one can often see Indiana temporary registration tags in rear windows, it is clear that Indiana law actually required Miranda–Sotolongo to place the temporary paper registration tag exactly where he did—where a normal license plate goes and not in the rear window. See Meredith v. State , 906 N.E.2d 867, 872–73 (Ind. 2009). Miranda–Sotolongo is correct in theory, then, that if the only basis for the stop had been the officer's suspicion that the display of the registration tag somehow violated Indiana law, we could uphold the stop only if the officer's mistaken understanding of the law about how to display a temporary tag was a reasonable one. See Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 530, 539, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) (“The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or of law—must be objectively reasonable.”).

We need not decide whether the Illinois officer's mistaken view of Indiana traffic law was reasonable. Although the location of the tag was what first caught Officer Johnson's eye, the record makes clear that he did not stop Miranda–Sotolongo's vehicle until after two computer checks failed to verify that the vehicle was temporarily registered as the tag indicated. The reason for the stop was not to investigate the placement or form of the tag but to verify that the tag was not disguising a stolen or unregistered vehicle. The fact that Indiana has chosen to use pieces of paper that appear easy to forge as temporary tags might have contributed to the officer's suspicions. But Officer Johnson also had information that this particular temporary tag did not appear in the database it should have been in. Finding reasonable suspicion here would not allow the police to stop just any vehicle with a temporary Indiana registration tag.

To avoid this logic, Miranda–Sotolongo also argues that the police were not entitled to consider the information from the law enforcement database in the first place. He argues that the information was discovered by a search that was itself unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In his view, because the only reason for the computer check was either a random “spot check” or the officer's mistaken belief that the temporary tag did not comply with Indiana law, there was no individualized suspicion of wrongdoing or other justification for the officer's decision to check his registration.

A police officer's check of a vehicle registration in a database is not a Fourth Amendment search, as every other circuit that has considered this issue has held. See, e.g., United States v. Diaz–Castaneda , 494 F.3d 1146, 1150–52 (9th Cir. 2007) ; United States v. Ellison , 462 F.3d 557, 561–63 (6th Cir. 2006) ; Olabisiomotosho v. City of Houston , 185 F.3d 521, 529 (5th Cir. 1999) ; cf. United States v. Walraven , 892 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1989) (“Because they are in plain view, no privacy interest exists in license plates.”), citing

827 F.3d 668

United States v. Matthews , 615 F.2d 1279, 1285 (10th Cir. 1980). The registration check involves only checking publicly displayed registration information against official public records. We see no difference between such checks and comparing, for example, a photograph of a person against mug shots or latent fingerprints against FBI fingerprint records.

In this case, observing and recording the registration number was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Nor was it a search to use the registration tag number (in which defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy) to retrieve the registration information present in the law...

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44 practice notes
  • United States v. Richmond, No. 18-1559
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 13, 2019
    ...could be either lawful or unlawful—is a core reason the Constitution permits investigative stops." United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016). Because the aggregate facts support a particularized and objective basis for the officers to suspect Richmond was engage......
  • People v. Hinshaw, No. 46
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • September 1, 2020
    ...of wrongdoing" (People v. Bushey, 29 N.Y.3d 158, 160, 53 N.Y.S.3d 604, 75 N.E.3d 1165 [2017] ; United States v. Miranda–Sotolongo, 827 F.3d 663, 667 [7th Cir. 2016] ["A police officer's check of a vehicle registration in a database is not a Fourth Amendment search"] ).3 The Court in Ingle d......
  • Mwangangi v. Nielsen, 1:19-cv-04105-JMS-MJD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • March 5, 2021
    ...rely on information from callers, even if the caller is ultimately shown to be mistaken. See, e.g. , United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016) ("Reasonable suspicion ... does not require the officer to rule out all innocent explanations of what he sees. The need......
  • United States v. Wilkins, CRIMINAL ACTION NO. 19-10401-RGS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • April 2, 2020
    ...1015.4 It is true, as the government points out, that a subsequent decision of the Seventh Circuit, United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016), implicitly criticized the broad language of Paniagua-Garcia . The factual circumstances were, however, quite different.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
44 cases
  • United States v. Richmond, No. 18-1559
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • May 13, 2019
    ...could be either lawful or unlawful—is a core reason the Constitution permits investigative stops." United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016). Because the aggregate facts support a particularized and objective basis for the officers to suspect Richmond was engage......
  • People v. Hinshaw, No. 46
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals
    • September 1, 2020
    ...of wrongdoing" (People v. Bushey, 29 N.Y.3d 158, 160, 53 N.Y.S.3d 604, 75 N.E.3d 1165 [2017] ; United States v. Miranda–Sotolongo, 827 F.3d 663, 667 [7th Cir. 2016] ["A police officer's check of a vehicle registration in a database is not a Fourth Amendment search"] ).3 The Court in Ingle d......
  • Mwangangi v. Nielsen, 1:19-cv-04105-JMS-MJD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • March 5, 2021
    ...rely on information from callers, even if the caller is ultimately shown to be mistaken. See, e.g. , United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016) ("Reasonable suspicion ... does not require the officer to rule out all innocent explanations of what he sees. The need......
  • United States v. Wilkins, CRIMINAL ACTION NO. 19-10401-RGS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • April 2, 2020
    ...1015.4 It is true, as the government points out, that a subsequent decision of the Seventh Circuit, United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo , 827 F.3d 663, 669 (7th Cir. 2016), implicitly criticized the broad language of Paniagua-Garcia . The factual circumstances were, however, quite different.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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