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Police officer’s stop of a driver for a partially obscure license plate upheld following fourth amendment challenge

McCullough was arrested and convicted for marijuana distribution. His conviction was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. McCullough. This is how the facts unfold. He was initially pulled over by an Alabama police officer for driving with a partially obscure license plate. While the numbers on the Alabama issued plate were visible, a license bracket in the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings obscured pares of the license plate including the state of issue. Alabama law provides that every motor vehicle operator shall at all times keep the license tag or license plate plainly visible on the rear end of a mother vehicles. The officer stopped McCullough because the officer believe that he had violated this law by having the eagle bracket. When McCullough was stopped, the officer issued him a ticket for failing to have a plainly visible license plate.

The officer then smelled marijuana coming from the inside of the truck and a search of the truck led to the discover of $8,335 and a marijuana. After the officer seized $4,000 and a key to a hotel room, the officer obtained a search warrant for the room and found $1,000, bags of marijuana and a gun.

He was charged with possession with the intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress on the grounds the officer lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop him for partly obscuring the license plate because Alabama law only requires that the alphanumeric symbols be visible not the full license plate. The district court denied the motion. He pleaded guilty to each count before a magistrate judge. Prior to sentencing the probation officer calculated the guideline range to be 262-327 base on his status as a career offender with a career history e category of VI and a consecutive mandatory minimum of five years for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

When the district court reassigned the case to a new judge for sentencing McCullough argued that the reassignment violated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 25 which provides that a district court may reassign a matter to a new judge if after a verdict or finding of guilt the judger who presided at trial cannot perform those duties because of absence, death sickness or other disability. He was given a sentence of 294 months.

The court of appeal rejected his claim that a Rule 25 violation took place by the reassignment. The court found that this rule does not apply to defendants who plead guilty and the rule is intended for defendants who go to trial. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in the reassignment to another judge.

The court of appeals disagreed with the defendant’s challenge to the traffic stop as an unlawful fourth amendment violation because the Alabama law only requires the alphanumeric symbols be plainly visible. The court found the stop was not unlawful because the officer’s contrary conclusion of objectively reasonable and the Alabama law leaves open the possibility that more than the alphanumeric symbols must be plainly visible.

Finally the court of appeals found the sentence was substantively reasonable because the court considered the relevant factors that were due significant weight.