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Back to Archives | Back to January 2004 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Criminal Arrest by License Plate

Richard J. Ashton, Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

Highway Safety Initiatives
Photograph by David Hathcox

Pictured, from left to right: Earl M. Sweeney, chair of the IACP Highway Safety Committee and assistant commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Safety; Shari M. Hendrickson, national sales manager in the 3M Traffic Control Materials Division; and Trooper Thomas A. Jones and Superintendent David L. Collins of the Wisconsin State Patrol.

As so many other law enforcement officers do every day, Trooper Thomas A. Jones of the Wisconsin State Patrol executed a traffic stop about 8:30 a.m. on February 19, 2003, and remained alert to other vehicles in the vicinity. But Jones's observation of a license plate associated with a suspect wanted in connection with a homicide in Kaukauna differentiated his morning from that of other law enforcers and earned him the grand prize in 3M's 2003 Looking Beyond the License Plate program. The suspect was reported possibly to be armed with a shotgun or a rifle and to be suicidal.

Jones confirmed that both the license plate and the make of the vehicle matched the description he had received, even though the vehicle's color differed from the color reported in the be-on-the-lookout (BOLO) announcement. He terminated his original traffic stop and pursued the gray Pontiac Grand Am traveling on Highway 8 in Lincoln County.

Jones and other police officers executed a high-risk stop and apprehended the driver, Joseph C. Huisman, 49, without incident. He was charged with—and on September 11, 2003, convicted of—first-degree intentional homicide in connection with the strangulation of his wife, Donna, who recently had filed for divorce. He has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The officers recovered from the rear seat of Huisman's vehicle an unloaded shotgun, as well as shotgun shells from its front passenger seat.

"Trooper Jones responded to an extremely dangerous situation with effective and professional enforcement action," said Captain Jeffrey J. Frenette, commander of Wisconsin State Patrol's District 4.

Jones was one of 222 U.S. law enforcement officers nominated in 2003 for the Looking Beyond the License Plate award, a program begun by the 3M Traffic Control Materials Division, in cooperation with the IACP's Highway Safety Committee, in 1998. Eighteen other police officers, three law enforcement agencies, and one civilian also were recognized by Highway Safety Committee judges for their initiative in solving serious crimes via this vital and cost-effective tool.

The judges were particularly impressed by Jones' meticulousness in ensuring that the license plate he had observed on a different color of vehicle was, in reality, the one actually being sought in the BOLO prior to his initiating any action toward making an apprehension.

Jones, who has 24 years' law enforcement experience, correctly believes that Huisman's arrest proves "we do more than just stop people for speeding." His observation mirrors the experience of myriad other law enforcement officers who solve serious crimes using the license plate—a readily identifiable tool, the display of which is mandated in every state and the information concerning which is virtually instantly accessible to police officers employing current technologies.

Even without today's mobile data computers and ever-improving wireless data solutions, the speed of which provide officers with an additional incentive for querying various databases, license plates always have served as a gateway to the solution of serious criminal acts. As a matter of fact, they have been responsible over the years for the solution of some of America's most notorious and shocking murders:

  • Baltimore police officers connected convicted Washington, D.C., sniper John Allen Muhammad to the vehicle in which he and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested on October 24, 2002, as a result of those officers' October 8, 2002, concerns about both the Washington State driver's license Muhammad displayed and the New Jersey license plate that appeared on the vehicle. Muhammad and Malvo are accused of gunning down 10 victims and wounding four others in October 2002 in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

  • Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charles J. Hanger stopped the vehicle Timothy J. McVeigh was driving just 75 minutes after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City because it was not displaying a license plate.

  • New York City police officers in 1977 used information obtained from a parking citation issued to serial murderer David Berkowitz's vehicle to help identify him as the infamous Son of Sam.
This nation certainly is more secure because of police officers' legitimate use of license plates to identify criminals and link them to their illicit acts. Congratulations to Trooper Jones, to the other Looking Beyond the License Plate award winners, and to all law enforcers who focus on license plates as one invaluable means to apprehend serious criminal offenders. Keep up the good work, and be careful out there.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 1, January 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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