Police officers often scan license plates for red flags while they’re cruising through town in between calls.
Sometimes it’s a quick glance to see if the registration tags are valid, or the officer may enter the license plate number and run a quick search through the police database.
If any red flags show up, such as an expired registration or stolen vehicle report, the officer has sufficient cause to pull-over the vehicle and check the operator’s identity.
When a police officer runs your name and driver’s license through the police database, they’ll have access to the following information:
- Your physical description – this information is listed on your driver’s license (e.g. 6’2” white male, brown eyes, 220 pounds), so the database-check simply ensures you’re not using a false or stolen ID.
- Your address – again, this information is listed on your driver’s license, so the officer will already know this before he or she runs your name in the system.
- Your driving record – most states include moving violations from the past 12 months, but there are situations where a violation can stay on your record for longer.
- Your criminal history – the report will include any criminal arrests, charges, and convictions in the state of Arizona. Criminal arrests, charges, and convictions from other states may or may not show up on the report, depending on that state’s reporting policies.
- Any outstanding warrants – as with your criminal history, the report will primarily highlight outstanding warrants in the state of Arizona. Outstanding warrants from other states will only surface if the warrant was reported to the national database or to surrounding states.
- Your license status – as long as you’re not driving with a suspended or expired license, your report will indicate that your license is valid.
- The vehicle information – if the driver’s license is linked to any registered vehicles (i.e. the vehicle you’re driving when you’re pulled over) the report will list the vehicle’s registration status and description, including the VIN, make, model, year, and color. Some states don’t list the model name, and instead include the vehicle type (convertible, coupe, SUC, etc.).
What Do Police Officers See When They Run Your Vehicles Information?
When a police officer runs your license plate—independently or in conjunction with a traffic stop—the officer will typically see the vehicle’s registration status (valid, expired, or stolen), the vehicle description (VIN, make, model, type, and color), and the owner’s identity (name and description).
In Arizona, the report will also indicate whether the registered owner’s driver’s license is valid, expired, or suspended, and whether the vehicle is properly insured.
When the license plate report flags a potential issue, the police officer should attempt to identify the driver before pulling over the vehicle.
If the driver appears to match the registered owner’s description (e.g. white woman age 65 with black hair), then the officer is free to flip on the lights and pull the vehicle over.
If the driver doesn’t match the description in the report and there isn’t a stolen vehicle report, it’s up to the police officer’s discretion to pull over the vehicle.
Cases of Mistaken Identity
When law enforcement issues a BOLO (be on the lookout) for a person, the police database will trigger an alert for people with similar names.
For example, a BOLO for Sam Smith may flag the names Sam Smyth and Samantha Smith.
As such, it’s possible to mistakenly have your name flagged when police run your driver’s license if there’s a BOLO for someone with a similar name.
When this happens, the officer should compare your physical appearance to the description of the person with the BOLO, and they may ask you some personal questions to eliminate any suspicion.
A BOLO for a vehicle often includes partial information, so it’s also possible to get caught up in the net if your vehicle matches part of that description.
For example, if the police are looking for a late-model red Mercedes coupe and a police officer happens to run your license plate while stopped behind you at a traffic light, the BOLO may trigger a traffic stop if you drive a matching vehicle.
Similarly, if your vehicle’s VIN includes enough matching digits to the vehicle the police are looking for (having 7 of the 17 digits may trigger a match), your vehicle may get flagged for a traffic stop.
If you find yourself in either of these cases of mistaken identity, understand that the police officer who pulled you over is likely in a heightened state of caution—especially if the BOLO is for a stolen vehicle or in connection to a serious crime.
The officer will be able to clear up the mistaken identity as soon as they run your driver’s license, but until then you should exercise extreme caution. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the officer has the freedom to infringe on your rights, and you should consult with an attorney if you are assaulted or wrongfully detained.
What To Do If You Get Arrested
Citizens in the United States have the right to due process, fair representation, and a fair trial.
If you are detained or arrested, there are five important things that you need to remember to preserve these rights:
- You have the right to remain silent and speak to an attorney before speaking with the police. Your only obligation is to provide your name and address. Don’t offer any excuses, explanations, alibis, or stories by yourself. You can establish a defense when you go to court, ideally with the help of an attorney. The police officers who arrest you may try to convince you that talking to them now makes things a lot easier for you, but in the end, it only makes it easier for law enforcement.
- Exercise your right to an attorney immediately, even if you can’t afford one. If you need the assistance of a public defender, the ask the police how you can contact one. Do not, under any circumstances, say anything without a lawyer.
- You have the right to make a local phone call within a reasonable amount of time after your arrest or booking. Depending on the situation, you may choose to call an attorney, a bail bonds agency, a relative, or a friend.
- In some cases, you can have your bail lowered or obtain a release based on your own recognizance (without bail). Before you post bail, ask your attorney to speak with the judge to see if these options are on the table.
- To protect your right to a fair trial, refrain from making any important decisions about your case until you have consulted with an attorney.
Call the JacksonWhite Criminal Law team at (480) 467-4370 to discuss your case today.