Background check case goes before state Supreme Court

Afour-year legal battle heads to the Oregon Supreme Court on Sept. 19 to decide whether the Jackson County Sheriff's Department violated a 47-year-old Medford man's constitutional rights by randomly running a background check on his license plate.

The court will listen to oral arguments in the Supreme Court Building, 1163 State St., in Salem, in the case of the State of Oregon versus Buck Wade Davis. A ruling could take several months.

The outcome of the case could have statewide ramifications, such as limiting the ability of law enforcement to run random license plate checks for stolen cars, a common practice.

An unfavorable ruling for the sheriff could potentially limit Medford police in their ability to use a new computerized camera system that automatically scans license plates as a patrol car moves through traffic. The sheriff is seeking a grant to equip more patrol cars with the same equipment.

"It would impact what police could do statewide," said Peter Gartlan, who headed Davis' legal team for the Office of Public Defense Services when the case went before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

So far, both the Jackson County Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals have sided with the actions of the sheriff's deputies, who pulled Davis over on Aug. 31, 2007, after he drove out of the Thunderbird market parking lot in West Medford.

The Oregon Attorney General's office argued the case on behalf of the deputies.

Davis' appeal is being consolidated with a similar case in Washington County.

According to court documents, two deputies in a patrol car were pulling into the market when one of them ran a random license plate check on Davis' truck even though initially they didn't suspect the driver of any wrongdoing.

Deputy David Bartlett discovered the owner of the vehicle had a suspended license related to a citation for driving under the influence.

Bartlett then conducted a computer search for the vehicle owner's photo and discovered it matched the identity of the driver. The deputies arrested Davis.

Davis eventually pleaded guilty to driving while suspended, but his attorneys sought to suppress the evidence obtained by the deputy because they maintained it amounted to unreasonable search and unlawful exercise of police discretion as defined in the Oregon Constitution.

Sheriff's deputies acknowledge they randomly conduct license plate checks as part of their duties, though they don't follow any written or formal policy. Deputies said there was nothing discriminatory in choosing Davis' car, describing it as a random search.

While the courts have sided with the sheriff's deputies, four members of the 10-member Court of Appeals joined in a dissenting opinion in the case, raising objections to the lack of clear policy within the sheriff's department to conduct random license plate searches. The type of random searching leaves open the question of whether there was discrimination or profiling involved in the procedure, the dissenting opinion suggested.

Gartlan said if the Supreme Court rules the collection of evidence violated Davis' constitutional rights, the evidence in the driving while suspended case would be suppressed.

"If he won his appeal, his conviction would go away," he said.

Andrea Carlson, spokeswoman for the sheriff, said running random license plate searches is a huge safety issue for Jackson County residents.

"We can run a plate in a park, and if we find a sex offender, we know that person is not supposed to be there," she said. "We are trying to keep the community and people safe."

In many cases, deputies are looking for probable cause, such as a car weaving on the road, before running the plates.

When deputies have the time, they can run random plate searches and catch people with suspended licenses, among other offenses.

Carlson said the sheriff is optimistic the Supreme Court will rule in his favor, otherwise it would be detrimental to law enforcement.

"It would impact the way we do things," she said.

After the Jackson County Circuit Court denied the motion to suppress the evidence, Davis pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license, but reserved the right to appeal.

Davis' attorneys argued that his license plate was in public view, but his driving records were not and should not be subject to random searches.

In its brief before the Court of Appeals, the Attorney General stated law enforcement has broad discretion under Oregon law to access driving records.

Kate Medema, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, said it would be difficult to predict the implications of an unfavorable ruling by the Supreme Court because the justices could analyze the case in so many ways.

"It's impossible to answer at this point," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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