Idaho Supreme Court

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BOISE — The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that a state law regarding how motorists must display temporary registration permits in their vehicles is unconstitutionally vague — so it didn’t provide probable cause to pull over a North Idaho woman whose car was subsequently searched and she was arrested for drug possession.

Wednesday’s ruling means Samantha Nicole Cook’s 2016 felony conviction for possession of a controlled substance is overturned, and the case is remanded back down to the district court in Kootenai County, with instructions that Cook’s motion to suppress the seized evidence should have been granted.

The woman, who was represented in the appeal by the Deputy State Appellate Public Defender Jenny Swinford, was pulled over just after midnight when a sheriff’s deputy noticed her vehicle didn’t have either front or rear license plates. As the vehicle was slowing and pulling over, the officer noticed a piece of paper in the rear window of Cook’s car. It was a temporary registration permit, but the officer couldn’t read it because condensation from rain had collected on the window.

The registration was valid; the officer was able to read the temporary permit once he wiped the condensation off the outside of the window.

He questioned the driver, detected the smell of marijuana and searched the vehicle, finding heroin and methamphetamine. Cook was arrested and submitted a conditional guilty plea to felony possession of a controlled substance, methamphetamine, while she appealed over the search.

The Idaho law in question says that a temporary registration permit “shall be displayed at all times while the vehicle is being operated on the highways by posting the permit upon the windshield of each vehicle or in another prominent place, where it may be readily legible.”

The state argued that because the permit wasn’t “readily legible,” Cook had committed a traffic violation that warranted pulling her over. The state also argued at an earlier suppression hearing that Cook had driven over the fog line, but video of the stop didn’t support that.

Justice John Stegner, writing for the unanimous court, noted that the district court and the Idaho Court of Appeals rejected Cook’s motion to suppress, finding that while the permit was properly displayed, it wasn’t “readily legible.”

But, he wrote, “We hold that this statute is unconstitutionally vague, because it failed to inform Cook what she needed to do in order to comply with the statute.”

Unlike Idaho’s law on display of license plates, this particular law doesn’t say that the permit must “be in a place and position to be clearly visible, and shall be maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible.”

Instead, Stegner wrote, the law “states that as long as the permit is posted where it ‘may be readily legible’ and remains there while the vehicle is operated on a highway, then the motorist has complied with the statute.”

He also noted that while the law requires the state Transportation Board to issue administrative rules to establish the form of temporary registration permits, it hasn’t done so.

Without more specific statutes and rules, Stegner wrote, “It is impossible for a person of ordinary intelligence to understand that she had not complied with the statute despite posting a valid permit where statutorily decreed.”

Chief Justice Roger Burdick and Justices Robyn Brody, Richard Bevan and Greg Moeller concurred in the decision.

The 2018 Crime in Idaho statistical report issued by the Idaho State Police suggested that traffic stops leading to drug possession arrests are among the fastest-growing types of crimes reported in Idaho; drug crimes were up 9.6% from 2017, with the vast majority of those involving possession or use of drugs, not sales. While residences were the most common place for all types of crimes to occur in Idaho, the most common place for drug crimes — a majority of them, at 56% — was on Idaho’s roads and highways. Just under 20% were at residences.

Idaho’s overall crime rate was the lowest in the West and the 6th lowest in the nation, according to the report, and dropped by 1.87 percent in 2018.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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