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Cops can't pull you over just because your state has legal weed, court rules

In a marijuana-related case, the United States Court of Appeals found that it's unconstitutional for police to pull over cars simply because they have out-of-state license plates.
Photo via Rex Features/AP

Motorists from states where marijuana is legal can breathe a bit easier on their next cross-country road trip thanks to a federal appeals court ruling yesterday.

In a 2-1 decision, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that it's unconstitutional for police to stop vehicles just because they have out-of-state license plates. The case dealt with a lawsuit filed by Colorado resident Peter Vasquez against two Kansas Highway Patrol officers who pulled him over and searched his car in 2012, partly on the grounds that he was from a state that is "known to be home to medical marijuana dispensaries."

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The cops called Colorado "a drug source area," and said Interstate 70 is "a known drug corridor." (Interstate 70 is more than 2,000 miles long, running from the East Coast to Utah.) There were other purported reasons for the stop and search — the cops claimed Vasquez was nervous and acting suspiciously, and said they couldn't see a temporary license plate tag that was taped to the inside of his 1992 BMW's tinted rear window — but the court wasn't buying it.

Related: Is the DEA's plan to let scientists grow their own pot just smoke and mirrors?

"It is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate," Judge Carlos Lucero wrote in his majority decision.

Noting that medical marijuana is now legal in 25 states and Washington, DC, Lucero said using state pot laws as an excuse for a traffic stop "would justify the search and seizure of the citizens of more than half of the states in our country."

Ever since Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, officials in neighboring states have claimed that Colorado weed is spilling across the border to places where the drug remains outlawed. In March, the Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over claims that the spillover has overburdened local law enforcement.

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Asked about the prevalence of Colorado-grown pot in Kansas, Lieutenant Adam Winters, a spokesperson for the Kansas Highway Patrol, told VICE News that "obviously there is some of that coming across the state line," but he was unable to provide data about drug seizures. In 2013, the Associated Press reported that 79 of the 133 felony pot trafficking cases in Kansas in the first five months of that year involved marijuana or motorists from Colorado.

Related: How America's legal weed is changing the black market and influencing Mexican cartels

Colorado drivers have frequently complained about profiling by Kansas authorities, and local media reports have suggested that Kansas cops tend to target rental vehicles with Colorado plates. Winters, however, denied that the Highway Patrol singles out drivers from Colorado. He also said the recent federal court ruling won't change how state police do their jobs.

"It's not affecting what we do on the road, we're not out there just stopping cars from Colorado," Winters said. "If that was the case, we wouldn't be getting anything done."

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton

Watch 'Inside America's billion-dollar weed business: The grass is greener'