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United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 28, 2016

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

          Argued April 20, 2015

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 13-10107-001- Joe Billy McDade, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, Hamilton, Circuit Judge, and Darrah, District 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 con- duct 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 other- wise not properly registered.

         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. 3 d 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 (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 (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 (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 (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.

         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.

         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 (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 lo- cation 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 ...

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