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Does an Expired Registration Provide a Reasonable Suspicion in Arizona?

You should be aware that allowing your vehicle or license registration to expire may provide police officers with a reasonable suspicion to stop you while driving in Arizona. Under A.R.S. section 28-2153, you cannot operate a motor vehicle that has not been registered with the department.

In the unpublished opinion of State v. Avalos, the defendant appealed after being convicted of aggravated DUI and aggravated driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 or more while his license was restricted, revoked, or suspended. He had been sentenced to concurrent terms of 10 years in prison.

A Tucson officer stopped the defendant after the officer checked the records and found the registration for the defendant’s car had expired eight days before. The officer approached the car, and the defendant got out and handed him his keys, saying he knew that the officer would tow the car. The officer took him back to the car and saw open beer bottles on the floor of the car at the driver’s seat.

The defendant admitted he was driving on a revoked or suspended license and had been drinking while driving. His blood alcohol content was .196. He was indicted for aggravated DUI as well as aggravated driving on a suspended license with a BAC higher than .08. However, he moved to suppress the evidence arising out of the officer’s stop on the ground that the officer didn’t have a reasonable suspicion his vehicle registration had expired, since the license plate indicated it was valid as of February 2015. The motion was denied.

During trial, the defendant objected to the instruction for aggravated DUI. He asked for a particular jury instruction that his driving ability was impaired, which was not given. The court instructed the jury that aggravated DUI while the defendant’s license was suspended, revoked, or canceled required the prosecution to prove he was impaired to the slightest degree by being under the influence of alcohol. The jury found the defendant guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the court had made a mistake in denying his request for an instruction directing the jury to find his driving ability was impaired. The appellate court explained that under Section 28-1381(A)(1), it is illegal to control a car while under the influence of alcohol if someone is impaired even to the slightest degree.

In a different case, the appellate court had told the trial court it should not instruct a jury that the prosecution needed to prove a defendant’s ability to drive was impaired. In other words, the legislature hasn’t chosen to require the court to find that someone’s physical ability to drive is impaired. Instead, a person can’t drive when even slightly impaired. The state doesn’t need to provide evidence of bad driving to obtain a guilty verdict.

In this case, the defendant argued that the DUI statutes prohibited dangerous driving, rather than intoxication. He claimed “impaired,” as used in the statute, only referred to an action rather than a person. The appellate court reasoned that a jury instruction didn’t need to be any more explicit than it was.

The defendant also argued the court mistakenly denied the motion to suppress because there was no reasonable suspicion to stop him. The appellate court explained that in Arizona, a cop can make a traffic stop to investigate suspected violations of traffic laws, including determining whether the registration on a particular car has expired under A.R.S. § 28-2153(A).

While an officer needs to have a reasonable suspicion that a driver has broken the law or is breaking the law, the court will look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a suspicion is reasonable. The officer saw the defendant drive past and then checked his license plate through the Motor Vehicle Division’s records. He saw the registration had expired, and this was enough to give him a reasonable suspicion there was a violation of § 28-2153(A).

The defendant argued that the sticker on the car showed the registration was valid for the whole month. The officer had testified, however, that vehicle registrations could expire in the middle of the month, so a license plate sticker didn’t reduce his reasonable suspicion. He had justification to investigate further.

The appellate court affirmed.

Although the defendant’s appeal was not successful in this case, there may be many different defenses appropriate to your particular case. It is important to have all of the facts of your case reviewed by an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you face DUI charges in Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, or Scottsdale, consult DUI attorney James E. Novak. He is a former Maricopa County Prosecutor who will use insights obtained as a prosecutor to determine whether any of your constitutional rights were violated or whether other defenses apply to your case. He offers a free initial consultation for those facing active criminal charges in his area. If you have been charged with a crime, call or contact The Law Office of James Novak at (480) 413-1499 and speak directly with Mr. Novak.

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