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Traft v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

February 15, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Steven Joseph Megerle Megerle Law

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky Jennifer Kathi Wright-Hatfield Special Assistant Attorney General



         I. BACKGROUND

         Appellant, Gregory Traft, was driving during the early morning hours and Boone County Deputy Sheriff Adam Schepis was traveling in the opposite direction. Schepis's police car was equipped with a camera that could read license plates in order to provide information about the vehicle and the vehicle's registered owner to law enforcement officers.. The record check performed by the license plate camera indicated that Traft, the vehicle's registered owner, had an active warrant for failing to appear in court.[1] Schepis turned and followed Traft, and eventually puiled the vehicle over. Traft asserts that it is undisputed that he committed no traffic infractions while Schepis followed him.

         Based on his knowledge that the owner of the vehicle was subject to a warrant for failure to appear, Schepis stopped the vehicle registered to Traft. As it turned out, Traft was the driver. Once he stopped the truck, Schepis noticed several signs that Traft was intoxicated. According to the citation, Traft failed field sobriety tests, admitted to drinking too many beers, and had a blood. alcohol level of nearly twice the legal limit according to Schepis's portable breathalyzer. Schepis arrested Traft for driving under the influence and on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court.

         At trial, Traft filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop, arguing that Schepis violated his right to privacy when he reviewed his license and registration information for no reason. The Boone District Court denied that motion and Traft entered a conditional guilty plea to the DUI charge. He appealed to the Boone Circuit Court, which affirmed. The Court of Appeals granted Traft's motion for discretionary review and affirmed. Traft then filed a motion for discretionary review with this Court, which we granted. We also affirm.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Because Traft's allegations of error stem from what he argues to be violations of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, [2] we will begin our analysis there. The Fourth Amendment provides, in pertinent part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated .... " "Since Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, . . . (1967), the touchstone of Fourth Amendment analysis has been the question whether a person has a 'constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy."' Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 177 (1984) (quoting Katz, 389 U.S. at 360 (Harlan, J., concurring)). Therefore, our analysis turns upon whether Traft had a reasonable expectation of privacy in either his license plate or what he terms his "protected personal information" gleaned therefrom.

         Traft argues the information gathered by Schepis from his license plate was protected under the Fourth Amendment. In determining whether this is the case, we find Justice Harlan's explanation from his concurring opinion in Katz instructive. Therein, Justice Harlan stated: "there is a twofold requirement, first that a person have exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and, second, that the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as 'reasonable." Katz, 389 U.S. at 361. Furthermore, "the State's intrusion into a particular area . . . cannot result in a Fourth Amendment violation unless the area is one in which there is a 'constitutionally' protected reasonable expectation of privacy. New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106, 112 (1986) (quoting Katz, 389 U.S. at 360 (Harlan, J., concurring)).

         Here, Traft certainly had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his license plate-either subjectively or objectively. The plate was displayed on the exterior of Traft's vehicle (as required by law), while Traft drove on a public street. Likewise, Schepis was driving on the same public street when he observed Traft's vehicle and collected the information from his license plate. It is well settled that "[w]hat a person knowingly exposes to the public ... is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection." Katz, 389 U.S. at 351. Furthermore, "objects falling in the plain view of an officer who has a right to be in the position to have that view are subject to seizure ...'.." Harris v. United States, 390 U.S. 234, 236 (1968). We agree with the Sixth Circuit, which held:

No argument can be made that a motorist seeks to keep the information on his license plate private. The very purpose of a license plate number, like that of a Vehicle Identification Number, is to provide identifying information to law enforcement officials and others. The reasoning in [New York v.] Class[,475 U.S. 106 (1986)] vis-a-vis Vehicle Identification Numbers applies with equal force to license plates: "[B]ecause of the important role played by the [license plate] in the pervasive governmental regulation of the automobile and the efforts by the Federal Government to ensure that the [license ...

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