Supreme Court of California Justia
Docket No. S122744
People v. Saunders

Filed 6/29/06 (This opn. should follow companion case of P. v. Brendlin, also filed 6/29/06.)


Plaintiff and Respondent,
) Ct.App.
Santa Clara County
Defendant and Appellant.
Super. Ct. No. CC246493

May a peace officer order a traffic stop to investigate possible Vehicle
Code violations when the vehicle’s front license plate is missing and the
registration tabs on the rear license plate have expired but the vehicle’s rear
window displays what appears to be a current temporary operating permit? We
conclude that such an investigative stop does not run afoul of the Fourth
Amendment, at least when the officer has no other ready means of verifying the
vehicle’s compliance with the law. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court
of Appeal.
Defendant Devance Saunders appeals the denial of his motion to suppress
evidence (Pen. Code, § 1538.5, subd. (i)) after having pleaded guilty to carrying a
concealed weapon (id., § 12025, subd. (a)(2)), carrying a loaded firearm (id.,
§ 12031, subd. (a)(2)), and being a felon in possession of a firearm (id., § 12021,

subd. (a)) and ammunition (id., § 12316, subd. (b)). The following uncontradicted
facts are taken largely from the Court of Appeal opinion in this case.
On March 31, 2002, San Jose Police Officers Mark Womack, Brian
Simuro, and Javier Acosta were in an unmarked car near Club Rodeo on Coleman
Avenue in San Jose. They were patrolling a gathering of motorcycle clubs
engaged in an annual ritual called a “blessing.” The blessing included members of
the Hell’s Angels, the Mongols, and several other clubs, including the Soul
Brothers, who were associated with the Hell’s Angels. The officers had
knowledge of ongoing tensions between the Hell’s Angels and the Mongols and of
the clubs’ involvement in violence and weapons possession on previous occasions.
At the previous year’s blessing, members of the Hell’s Angels were arrested for
possession of automatic weapons and ammunition. Additionally, Officer Womack
had earlier that day participated in a traffic stop of a Hell’s Angels vehicle and
found weapons and body armor inside the vehicle.
Around 10:30 a.m., the officers saw a Chevy pickup truck following
directly behind 15 to 20 Soul Brothers members riding their motorcycles on
Coleman Avenue. The officers were aware that the vehicle preceding or following
a group of motorcycle club members is often the “load” or “tail” car, which carries
other members, wives or girlfriends of the members, weapons, and drugs. After
Officer Womack noted that the pickup had expired registration tabs and no front
license plate, the officers stopped the vehicle. Both the driver, Roosevelt Ingram,
and defendant, the passenger, wore leather jackets with “Soul Brothers” patches.
When Officer Simuro went to the driver’s side of the truck, Ingram asked why he
had been stopped. The officer explained it was because of the missing front
license plate and asked Ingram for his driver’s license and registration. After
Ingram complied, Officer Womack, who was on the passenger side, asked
defendant “if he had any I.D. with him.” Officer Womack could not recall

whether he saw a temporary operating permit taped to the pickup’s rear window.
Officer Acosta collected the identification cards and radioed in a records check.
Four or five minutes later, the officers learned that Ingram’s license was
When the driver has a suspended license, it is San Jose Police Department
policy to impound the vehicle. Consequently, the officers asked both men to get
out of the truck. As defendant stepped outside, Officer Womack noticed that
defendant was shaking and trembling and appeared to be very nervous. His large
and bulky jacket covered his waistband, where weapons are often concealed.
Based on these facts and the possibility that this was a “tail” car containing
weapons—like the Hell’s Angels vehicle containing weapons and body armor he
had seen earlier that morning—Officer Womack decided to patsearch defendant.
As he stepped behind defendant to begin the patsearch, he asked defendant “if he
had anything illegal on him.” Defendant replied, “Yes, I have a gun in my
pocket”—and, indeed, there was a loaded .25-caliber semiautomatic weapon in the
inner left pocket of defendant’s jacket. An inventory search of the pickup
uncovered .25-caliber bullets and a speed loader containing .357-caliber bullets in
a plastic baggie inside a work glove on the passenger-side floorboard.
Ingram testified at the suppression hearing that he had purchased the pickup
from a wrecking yard four or five months prior to the stop. He had applied to
register the vehicle in his wife’s name and to get new license plates, but he “hadn’t
finished the smog and some few other things [he] had to do to the truck before [he]
got the new license.” The truck was also “missing the bumpers.” The Department
of Motor Vehicles (DMV) had issued Ingram a temporary operating permit
sticker, which he placed in the upper right corner of the rear window. The sticker
bore a large number “3,” which corresponded to the month of March, and allowed
him to operate the vehicle through March 31, 2002.

Connie Gonzalez, a clerk at the DMV who handles licenses and
registrations, testified that a temporary operating permit is issued to a vehicle to
enable the owner to legally use the vehicle on the public roads while the
application for registration is being completed. The permit, which is always red,
displays a large, bold face number in white, indicating that the vehicle may be
lawfully operated until the last day of the corresponding month. Other
information on the permit specifies, among other things, the make of the vehicle,
the license plate number, the vehicle identification number (VIN), and the
applicable year. An officer would not be able to determine whether the sticker is
for the current year, or whether it is associated with the particular vehicle, without
stopping the vehicle and verifying the information on the sticker.
Defendant’s motion to suppress argued that the initial traffic stop was
unlawful; that if the seizure of his person began only when Officer Womack took
possession of his driver’s license, it too was unlawful; that the traffic stop, even if
lawful, was unreasonably prolonged; and that the patsearch was unlawful. The
trial court denied the motion, finding that the officer was justified in making a
traffic stop to investigate the apparent violation of Vehicle Code section 5200,
which requires a vehicle to have two license plates; that the officer had a right to
ask the driver for identification; and that the officer had ample concern for his
safety to justify the patsearch of defendant.
Following the denial of the motion to suppress, defendant pleaded guilty as
charged and admitted a prior strike conviction. At sentencing, the trial court
exercised its discretion under Penal Code section 1385 to dismiss the strike and
placed defendant on probation for three years, with the condition that defendant
serve six months in jail and not associate with motorcycle gangs.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. It found that the Fourth
Amendment rights of defendant, as a passenger, were not infringed by the traffic

stop; that the traffic stop was in any event justified by the missing front license
plate and the expired registration tab; that the traffic stop was not unlawfully
prolonged; and that the officer’s concern that defendant might be concealing a
weapon justified the patsearch. We granted review, limited to (1) whether
defendant, as a passenger in a vehicle subjected to a traffic stop, was seized within
the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; and (2) whether reasonable suspicion of
Vehicle Code violations relating to the missing front license plate and the expired
registration tab could exist where the pickup also displayed a current temporary
operating permit.
In ruling on a motion to suppress, the trial court must find the historical
facts, select the rule of law, and apply it to the facts in order to determine whether
the law as applied has been violated. We review the court’s resolution of the
factual inquiry under the deferential substantial-evidence standard. The ruling on
whether the applicable law applies to the facts is a mixed question of law and fact
that is subject to independent review. (People v. Brendlin (June 29, 2006,
S123133) __ Cal.4th ___, ___ [at pp. 4-5] (Brendlin).) In this case, the facts are
largely undisputed.
During a patsearch following a traffic stop of a pickup in which defendant
was a passenger, the police discovered a loaded semiautomatic firearm in
defendant’s jacket pocket. The police also found ammunition on the passenger-
side floorboard of the truck. Defendant seeks suppression of the evidence seized
from his person and the vehicle in which he was riding, asserting that the traffic
stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The Attorney General responds
that we need not consider whether the traffic stop was justified because defendant,
as a passenger in the vehicle, was not seized within the meaning of the Fourth
Amendment when the driver submitted to the show of police authority.

The Attorney General correctly describes defendant’s status at the inception
of the traffic stop. As explained in Brendlin, supra, __ Cal.4th at page ___ [at p.
1], a mere passenger in a vehicle is not seized when a police officer initiates a
traffic stop absent additional circumstances that would indicate to a reasonable
person that he or she was the subject of the peace officer’s investigation or show
of authority. Here, as in Brendlin, the officer effecting the traffic stop took no
actions that would have indicated to defendant that he was the subject of the
officer’s show of authority or investigation at the time the driver, Roosevelt
Ingram, pulled over.
Our analysis, however, cannot stop there, for defendant argues that even if
he was not seized at the outset, a seizure occurred when Officer Womack
approached the passenger side of the vehicle, asked defendant for his
identification, handed the license to Officer Acosta (who retained it to perform a
radio check), and then ordered defendant to exit the vehicle. (See People v.
Arteaga (Ill.App.Ct. 1995) 655 N.E.2d 290, 291-292.) The Attorney General
responds that because defendant was free to leave when the truck came to a stop,
his interaction with Officer Womack must be viewed as a consensual encounter.
(See People v. Cartwright (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1362, 1370; State v. Gulick (Me.
2000) 759 A.2d 1085, 1088.) Yet, even assuming the officer’s conversation with
defendant were deemed a consensual encounter, defendant was unquestionably
seized when the officer ordered him to step out of the truck. Under Maryland v.
Wilson (1997) 519 U.S. 408, an officer’s authority to order a passenger to exit a
vehicle during a traffic stop as a matter of course is limited to those vehicles that
are “lawfully stopped.” (Id. at p. 410.) To uphold this seizure, then, the People
must demonstrate that the underlying traffic stop was lawful.
“[P]ersons in automobiles on public roadways may not for that reason alone
have their travel and privacy interfered with at the unbridled discretion of police

officers.” (Delaware v. Prouse (1979) 440 U.S. 648, 663.) However, when there
is articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed, that an
automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise
subject to seizure for violation of law, the vehicle may be stopped and the driver
detained in order to check his or her driver’s license and the vehicle’s registration.
(Ibid.; see Pennsylvania v. Mimms (1977) 434 U.S. 106, 109 [expired registration
tags justified traffic stop].)
In this case, Officer Womack observed that the registration tab on the
pickup’s rear license plate had expired. This appeared to be a violation of Vehicle
Code section 4000, subdivision (a)(1), which requires the vehicle be currently
registered; Vehicle Code section 4601, subdivision (a), which requires the
vehicle’s registration be renewed annually prior to the expiration of the
registration year; and Vehicle Code section 5204, subdivision (a), which requires
current registration tabs to be displayed on the rear license plate. (See People v.
James (1969) 1 Cal.App.3d 645, 648.) Defendant argues that the officer’s belief
the pickup was in violation of these provisions was rebutted prior to the stop by
the officer’s observation of a temporary operating permit sticker, which was
affixed to the upper right corner of the rear window. The sticker bore a large
number “3,” which corresponded to the month of March. In defendant’s view, the
stop was therefore unjustified because Officer Womack had no articulable facts
supporting a suspicion the sticker was invalid. (See Veh. Code, §§ 4156, 5202.)
The Attorney General responds that the expired registration tab on the
license plate itself established articulable facts supporting the officer’s suspicion
the vehicle was unregistered. The temporary sticker, he continues, was
insufficient to rebut that suspicion because, as the DMV clerk testified, it would
not be possible to determine whether the sticker was for the current year or was

even associated with this vehicle without stopping the vehicle and examining the
sticker against the VIN.
We have not yet decided whether an officer may stop a vehicle that has an
expired registration tab but also displays a temporary operating permit. Some
courts hold that the Fourth Amendment bars an officer from effecting a traffic stop
in these circumstances. (E.g., State v. Childs (Neb. 1993) 495 N.W.2d 475, 481-
482; State v. Butler (S.C.Ct.App. 2000) 539 S.E.2d 414, 416-418.) In other cases,
the court or the defendant has assumed that a traffic stop limited to the purpose of
verifying the validity of the temporary permit is consistent with the Fourth
Amendment. (E.g., U.S. v. McSwain (10th Cir. 1994) 29 F.3d 558, 561; State v.
Diaz (Fla. 2003) 850 So.2d 435, 437.) We need not decide the issue, however,
because Officer Womack also noticed that the pickup’s front license plate was
missing. As defendant acknowledges, the lack of a front license plate has long
been recognized as a legitimate basis for a traffic stop. (People v. Superior Court
(Simon) (1972) 7 Cal.3d 186, 196; People v. Lee (1968) 260 Cal.App.2d 836, 839;
People v. Odegard (1962) 203 Cal.App.2d 427, 431; see Veh. Code, § 5200.)
Defendant offers two reasons for disallowing a traffic stop based on
Vehicle Code section 5200 in this case. Neither is persuasive.
Defendant points out first that a front license plate is required only “[w]hen
two license plates are issued by the department” (Veh. Code, § 5200), implying
that only one plate had been issued to Ingram’s vehicle. But defendant offers no
reason why that vehicle, a seemingly ordinary pickup truck, would have been
issued only one license plate (cf. U.S. v. Ramstad (10th Cir. 2002) 308 F.3d 1139,
1146), and Ingram’s testimony, which indicated that he was going to receive his
“plates” when he had finished the registration process, suggests that the vehicle
must have been issued two plates. More importantly, defendant fails to explain

why an officer observing the pickup truck with a missing front license plate would
have had no basis for believing two plates had been issued.
Defendant then cites Vehicle Code section 5202, which provides that
“[s]pecial permits issued in lieu of plates shall be attached and displayed on the
vehicle for which issued during the period of their validity.” In defendant’s view,
the temporary operating permit displayed on the rear window applied not only to
his expired registration but also to the missing license plate and thus, he argues,
“the vehicle in which he was riding was in full compliance with the law at the time
the police stopped it.” The question for us, though, is not whether Ingram’s
vehicle was in fact in full compliance with the law at the time of the stop, but
whether Officer Womack had “ ‘articulable suspicion’ ” it was not. (People v.
Celis (2004) 33 Cal.4th 667, 674; see generally Illinois v. Rodriguez (1990) 497
U.S. 177, 184 [“ ‘reasonableness,’ with respect to this necessary element, does not
demand that the government be factually correct in its assessment”].) The
possibility of an innocent explanation for a missing front license plate does not
preclude an officer from effecting a stop to investigate the ambiguity. (See Illinois
v. Wardlow (2000) 528 U.S. 119, 125-126; accord, People v. Leyba (1981) 29
Cal.3d 591, 599.) Here, Officer Womack had no ready means, short of a traffic
stop, of investigating whether the temporary operating permit applied only to the
expired registration or extended as well to the missing license plate.1 The license

Officer Womack apparently did not perform a radio check of the pickup’s
registration, but such an effort would have been futile in this case. Connie
Gonzalez, the DMV representative, testified that Ingram’s permit was not entered
into any computer database and that an officer would have to stop the vehicle to
verify its validity and scope. This case is thus distinguishable from Brendlin,
supra, __ Cal.4th at page ___ [at pp. 5-6], in which the deputy was able to verify
the vehicle’s registration status by means of a radio inquiry, and from People v.
(2004) 115 Cal.App.4th Supp. 1, 4, in which no evidence was offered as

(footnote continued on next page)

plate, after all, could have gone missing after Ingram had obtained the temporary
permit. Moreover, the officer’s suspicion that the vehicle was in violation of
section 5200 was supported by the DMV procedures for replacing lost, stolen, or
mutilated plates. Under those procedures, a registered owner must surrender or
mail in “the remaining plate(s).” (DMV, Obtain Duplicate or Substitute License
Plates and Stickers, at
<> [as of June 29,
2006].) Yet, as both parties testified, the pickup still displayed its rear license
plate, which supported the inference that the registered owner had not initiated the
process of replacing the missing plate. We therefore conclude that Officer
Womack had ample justification for ordering a traffic stop to investigate the
missing license plate.
Once the pickup had lawfully been stopped, the police were entitled to
demand the driver’s license and registration. (Veh. Code, §§ 4462, subd. (a),
12951, subd. (b); In re Arturo D. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 60, 67; id. at pp. 88-89 (conc.
& dis. opn. of Werdegar, J.).) It was at that point that the officers discovered that
Ingram’s license had been suspended, decided to impound the truck pursuant to
department policy, ordered the occupants out of the vehicle, and conducted the
patsearch of defendant’s person. Those actions were found proper by the superior
court and the Court of Appeal, and are beyond the scope of our grant of review.
Accordingly, our conclusion that the traffic stop was supported by reasonable

(footnote continued from previous page)

to whether the officer called his department for a registration check “and if he did
not, why he did not.”

suspicion of one or more Vehicle Code violations is sufficient to affirm the denial
of defendant’s motion to suppress.
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is affirmed.



I concur in the judgment; I agree with the majority that, regardless of the
expired registration tab and the temporary operating permit, the missing license
plate justified the traffic stop in this case.
I write separately to note my disagreement with the proposition that
Saunders, as a passenger, was not detained at the inception of the stop. (Maj. opn.,
ante, p. 6.) I would hold that Saunders was detained at that point; he had been
deprived of his freedom of movement and was subject to the officers’ control.
(See People v. Brendlin (June __, 2006, S123133), dis. opn. of Corrigan, J.)

See next page for addresses and telephone numbers for counsel who argued in Supreme Court.

Name of Opinion People v. Saunders

Unpublished Opinion

XXX NP opn. filed 1/9/04 – 6th Dist.
Original Appeal
Original Proceeding
Review Granted

Rehearing Granted


Opinion No.

Date Filed: June 29, 2006


County: Santa Clara
Judge: William R. Danser


Attorneys for Appellant:

George O. Benton, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.


Attorneys for Respondent:

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Robert R. Anderson, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gerald A. Engler,
Assistant Attorney General, Martin S. Kaye and Ronald E. Niver, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff
and Respondent.

Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion):

George O. Benton
1535 Farmers Lane
No. 231
Santa Rosa, CA 95405
(707) 538-7716

Ronald E. Niver
Deputy Attorney General
455 Golden Gate Avenue, Suite 11000
San Francisco, CA 94102-7004
(415) 703-5859

Opinion Information
Date:Docket Number:
Thu, 06/29/2006S122744

1Saunders, Devance (Defendant and Appellant)
Represented by George O. Benton
Attorney at Law
1535 Farmers Lane, Suite 231
Santa Rosa, CA

2The People (Plaintiff and Respondent)
Represented by Ronald E. Niver
Office of the Attorney General
455 Golden Gate Avenue, Suite 11000
San Francisco, CA

Jun 29 2006Opinion: Affirmed

Feb 19 2004Petition for review filed
  By counsel for appellant {Devance Saunders} / 40(K).
Feb 19 2004Record requested
Feb 23 2004Received Court of Appeal record
  file jacket/briefs/transcripts
Apr 14 2004Petition for review granted (criminal case)
  Votes: George, CJ., Kennard, Chin, Brown and Moreno, JJ.
Apr 28 2004Issues ordered limited
  The issues to be briefed and argued are limited to the following: (1) Was defendant, as a passenger in a vehicle subjected to a traffic stop, thereby "detained" for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, thus allowing him to challenge the legality of the stop? (2) Could the vehicle be stopped on reasonable suspicion of Vehicle Code violations, including expired registration, where it exhibited an expired license plate registration tag, and had no front license plate, but also displayed what appeared from a distance to be a current temporary registration permit? Werdegar, J., was absent and did not participate.
May 7 2004Counsel appointment order filed
  Upon request of appellant for appointment of counsel, George Benton is hereby appointed to represent appellant on his appeal now pending in this court. Appellant's brief on the merits shall be served and filed on or before thirty days from the date of this order.
May 27 2004Request for extension of time filed
  counsel for appellant requesting a 30-day extension to and including July 6, 2004 to file appellant's opening brief on the merits.
Jun 9 2004Extension of time granted
  To July 6, 2004 to file appellant's Opening Brief on the Merits.
Jun 29 2004Request for extension of time filed
  Appellant requesting a 10-day extesnion to and including July 16, 2004 to file appellant's opening brief on the merits.
Jul 7 2004Extension of time granted
  To July 16, 2004 to file Appellant's Opening Brief on the Merits.
Jul 14 2004Opening brief on the merits filed
  By counsel for appellant {Devance Saunders}.
Aug 11 2004Compensation awarded counsel
  Atty Benton
Aug 13 2004Answer brief on the merits filed
  by counsel for respondent (Devance Saunders).
Sep 3 2004Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
  By appellant {Devance Saunders} / CRC 40(K).
Mar 8 2006Case ordered on calendar
  Wednesday, April 5, 2006, at 9:00 a.m., in Los Angeles
Apr 5 2006Cause argued and submitted
Jun 29 2006Opinion filed: Judgment affirmed in full
  Opinion by: Baxter, J. -----joined by: George, C.J. Kennard, Chin, J.J. Concurring opinion by: Corrigan, J. -----joined by: Wedegar, Moreno, J.J.
Jul 12 2006Request for modification of opinion filed
  The People, respondent Ronald E. Niver, Counsel
Jul 26 2006Opinion modified - no change in judgment
Jul 26 2006Compensation awarded counsel
  Atty Benton
Aug 3 2006Remittitur issued (criminal case)
Mar 6 2007Received Court of Appeal record
  one file jacket

Jul 14 2004Opening brief on the merits filed
Aug 13 2004Answer brief on the merits filed
Sep 3 2004Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
If you'd like to submit a brief document to be included for this opinion, please submit an e-mail to the SCOCAL website