Driving an uninsured vehicle now provides law enforcement with reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, at least according to the federal government. TexasSure, a vehicle insurance verification program, came about when the Texas Legislature directed the Texas Departments of Insurance, Public Safety, Motor Vehicles, and Information Resources to develop a system to reduce the number of uninsured motorists. The agencies have compiled a database that connects every registered vehicle in the state of Texas by its license plate, vehicle identification number, and liability insurance policy. In short, law enforcement officers can immediately access the database and verify if you are driving without insurance.
Recently, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an “unconfirmed” insurance hit on the state-wide database provides law enforcement with reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.
Officer Juan Leal began following a vehicle driven by Cecilio Broca-Martinez because it matched a description Homeland Security agents had provided the Laredo Police Department. Officer Leal stopped Broca-Martinez after a computer search indicated the vehicle’s insurance status was “unconfirmed.” The stop led to the discovery that Broca-Martinez was in the country illegally and that he was harboring undocumented immigrants at his residence. Broca-Martinez entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens in violation of federal law. On appeal, Broca-Martinez contended that there was no reasonable suspicion justifying the initial stop. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court ruling because “[a] state computer database indication of insurance status may establish reasonable suspicion when the officer is familiar with the database and the system itself is reliable. If that is the case, a seemingly inconclusive report such as ‘unconfirmed’ will be a specific and articulable fact that supports a traffic stop.” United States v. Broca-Martinez, No. 16-40817, 2017 WL 1521492, at *4 (5th Cir. Apr. 28, 2017).
So, what does this mean for Texas law? States may provide more protection than provided by the federal constitution. But this issue appears to have split some of the intermediate appellate courts in Texas. In Gonzalez–Gilando v. State, troopers checked a computer database to determine whether a passing vehicle was lawfully registered and whether it was covered by liability insurance. While the car was lawfully registered, the information regarding insurance was unavailable. In other words, the information garnered from the database did not provide the troopers basis to confirm whether or not such insurance existed. The Amarillo Court of Appeals overturned a trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress, reasoning that a computerized search that resulted in a report that insurance information for the vehicle was unavailable was not sufficient evidence to establish that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. Gonzalez-Gilando v. State, 306 S.W.3d 893, 894 (Tex. App.--Amarillo 2010, pet. ref’d).
However, the First Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion. In Crawford v, State, the court held that the police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle where the officer’s mobile data terminal yielded specific information identifying the insurance policy covering the car and revealed that it had lapsed more than a month before the stop and that the car’s owner had not confirmed existence of liability insurance coverage during that period. Crawford v. State, 355 S.W.3d 193 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 2011, pet. ref’d).
In Oliva-Arita v. State, a Friendswood Police Department officer ran a computer check on a vehicle’s license plate number and received information that the vehicle's insurance was “unconfirmed.” The officer testified that, when he runs a license plate check, he receives information regarding the registered owner and the vehicle. He also receives information as to whether the vehicle's insurance is “confirmed” or “unconfirmed,” the insured's policy number, the insurance provider, the policy start and expiration dates, and whether the policy has been expired more than forty-five days. The officer testified that “confirmed” typically means that the vehicle is insured and that “unconfirmed” typically means that the vehicle is uninsured. He stated that he has used the insurance database “a lot ... for almost every traffic stop,” and that, in his experience, the information that he receives from the computer database is reliable. Because the officer offered an opinion as to what the ambiguous information from the database meant, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to suppress. Oliva-Arita v. State, No. 01-15-00140-CR, 2015 WL 7300202 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] Nov. 19, 2015, pet. ref’d) (not designated for publication).
The Fifth Circuit seems to have definitively decided that an ambiguous response from a state-wide database provides sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. There is a glimmer of hope for Texas defendants. But this appears to hinge on the expertise of the testifying officer and how well he/she has been prepared by the State. We, as defense attorneys, must find creative ways to attack a traffic stop made on this basis. First, go after the database. Investigate how this information is collected and stored. How often is it updated? What is the error rate? Second, go after the officers “expertise” in this area. Does he know how the database is maintained? Has he ever gone back to ensure that all of his stops are righteous? The Court of Criminal Appeals will ultimately determine this issue, but I don’t hold out much hope that Texas citizens will enjoy more Fourth Amendment protections than those offered by the federal government. Until then, continue to differentiate your facts from the unfavorable case law.