Appeal from Yakima Superior Court. Docket No: 11-1-01150-5. Date filed: 04/24/2012. Judge signing: Honorable David a Elofson.
James P. Hagarty, Prosecuting Attorney, for appellant.
Janet G. Gemberling (of Janet Gemberling PS ), for respondent.
AUTHOR: Laurel H. Siddoway, J. Teresa C. Kulik, J.P.T. concurs. Kevin M. Korsmo, C.J. (dissenting).
[179 Wn.App. 536] Siddoway,
¶ 1 In State v. Snapp, 174 Wn.2d 177, 275 P.3d 289 (2012), the Washington Supreme Court held that a [179 Wn.App. 537] police officer's Terry  stop of a driver on a dark evening for failure to have his headlights illuminated was supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion even though it was later demonstrated that the officer stopped the driver only 24 minutes after sunset, whereas the applicable statute, RCW 46.37.020, generally requires that headlights be illuminated beginning one-half hour after sunset. " [T]he question of a valid stop does not depend upon [a defendant's] actually having violated the statute," the court held; " [r]ather, if [the officer] had a reasonable suspicion that he was violating the statute, the stop was justified." Snapp, 174 Wn.2d at 198.
¶ 2 In this case, the state of Washington asks us to extend the holding in Snapp to a Terry stop by a police officer who misread a license plate number, obtained information that the wrong number he reported was associated with stolen plates, and on that basis stopped a car bearing different-numbered plates and detained its driver.
¶ 3 An officer may reasonably suspect that it is a half hour after sunset, thereby requiring illuminated headlights, even though later, more complete information reveals that he was mistaken. An officer cannot reasonably believe that a car bears stolen license plates based on a WACIC  report addressing an unrelated license plate number. We affirm the trial court, which properly granted the motion to suppress.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
¶ 4 As part of a routine check during his nighttime patrol, Officer Gabe Ramos observed a car being driven by Joanne Creed and attempted to run its license plate number against the WACIC database. The WACIC database is a compilation of vehicle information and plate numbers from [179 Wn.App. 538] stolen vehicles and license plates, among other information. Although the number on Ms. Creed's license plate was 154 YDK, Officer Ramos misread it and entered " 154 YMK" into his computer. The WACIC printout returned for license plate 154 YMK indicated that it was stolen. Based solely on this information, Officer Ramos initiated a traffic stop.
¶ 5 After he activated his overhead lights and Ms. Creed pulled into a nearby parking space, Officer Ramos realized that he had misread the plate number. While Ms. Creed waited in her car at the officer's direction, he ran the correct plate number and learned that she was not, in fact, driving a car with stolen plates. He approached Ms. Creed's driver's side door to inform her of his mistake and tell her she was free to go.
¶ 6 As he approached, however, he saw Ms. Creed toss an item behind her driver's seat. He could not tell what it was. When he reached her door, he used his flashlight to illuminate the inside of her car. With the aid of his flashlight, he recognized the item on the floor behind her seat as a " 'tar like' substance[ ]" inside small " baggies," which appeared to be heroin. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 81. He placed Ms. Creed under arrest for possession of a controlled substance.
¶ 7 After Officer Ramos advised Ms. Creed of her Miranda  rights, she admitted that
the substance in her car was heroin. She later consented in writing to a search of her car and officers seized the heroin. A later inventory search of Ms. Creed's purse produced two loaded syringes. Ms. Creed was charged with one count of possession of a controlled substance--heroin--under RCW 69.50.4013(1).
¶ 8 Ms. Creed moved to suppress the heroin seized, arguing, first, that the traffic stop was unlawful because " the only basis for the stop was based on the officer's unreasonable mistake of fact," and therefore " [a] reasonable suspicion of criminal activity did not exist" at the time of the seizure. CP at 2. Second, she argued that even if the [179 Wn.App. 539] initial stop was justified, " the officer exceeded the [scope] of any permissible stop by continuing to detain Ms. Creed after the officer realized his mistake." Id.
¶ 9 The trial court granted the motion to suppress and dismissed the case. While finding that the officer's mistake was made in " good faith," it also found that the mistaken reading of the license plate was " [t]he sole reason for the initial stop of Ms. Creed's vehicle." CP at 81. The court further found that even after learning that he had entered the wrong plate number, the officer continued to engage in investigatory acts without lawful authority. It concluded that " [t]he officer's mistaken reading of the license plate did not provide a reasonable articulable suspicion, based on objective facts[,] that Ms. Creed had committed a violation of the law" ; that his " good faith mistake does not provide a basis for the traffic stop" ; and that " [t]here is no exception to the exclusionary rule which would ...