A disputed traffic stop along Highway 101 in Cloverdale that led to the seizure of 21 pounds of marijuana was valid because the car had a partially obscured license plate.
That’s the ruling from Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Medvigy, even though the officer making the stop could identify both the license plate’s number and the state that issued it. The case appears to uphold a common police practice along the corridor connecting the famed Emerald Triangle pot-growing region to the greater Bay Area.
It comes despite criticism that so-called “pretext” stops favored by officers are mere cover for unreasonable searches. Many complain cars with out-of-state license plates, rental cars and those driven by young people and nonwhites are targeted by officers.
“Basically what they’re doing is profiling,” said Santa Rosa attorney Andy Martinez, who represented one of two defendants in the case. “It was an out-of-state plate and my guy had hair down to his shoulders.”
But officers denied any wrongdoing, saying traffic violations, no matter how minor, are just cause to pull people over. Besides, the section of highway just south of the Mendocino County line is a known trafficking spot.
“Highway 101 is used to move high-grade marijuana to Southern California and other states,” CHP Officer Jeremiah Rudder said in court Wednesday.
Rudder, a K-9 officer based in Rohnert Park, testified he was patrolling the area last April when he noticed a Lincoln Town Car with Oregon plates heading south near the South Cloverdale Boulevard exit.
The officer said he could read the license number and recognized the state of issue, but couldn’t see the word “Oregon” because it was covered by a dealership frame.
Based on the vehicle code violation, he conducted a stop, smelled marijuana and began a search of the car, he said.
The driver, John Conrad, and passenger, Faith Desterdick, both of Petaluma, gave at least partial consent, the officer said.
In the trunk, he found two boxes labeled for shipping to Jamaica, N.Y., that contained 21 1-pound bags of marijuana, he said.
“(Conrad) told me it was for personal use,” Rudder testified.
The pot was seized and the two were arrested. Both later were charged with possession of marijuana for sale and marijuana transportation.
They hired lawyers, who argued Wednesday the case should be dismissed because evidence was obtained from an illegal search.
Santa Rosa attorney Paul Lozada, who represented Desterdick, argued Oregon law allows state names to be covered. He said California officers must honor that because it is a contiguous state.
Also, Lozada said there never was any question about the plate’s origin. Rudder admitted he recognized it as an “Oregon Trail” commemorative plate and that he could read the numbers.
Lozada said the stop was not justified.
But prosecutors and the judge disagreed. Both said it was a clear violation that constituted probable cause.
Just because a trained officer identified the Oregon licensing, it doesn’t mean other drivers would if they were reporting a crime or crash, prosecutor Dustin Hughson suggested.
“License plates are there for police officers to refer to, but they are also there for the average citizen,” Hughson said.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.