By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant Technical Management Manager, IACP
he license plate should be a vital, cost-effective, and readily identifiable law enforcement tool. Every state and province mandates its display, and information concerning one is accessible to police officers in real time. Noncompliance with a jurisdiction’s vehicle registration laws can serve as a gateway to clearing serious crime. For example, a vehicle displaying one plate in a state or province requiring two—or one with either an absent or expired validation tab—is an objective measure that provides probable cause to believe a violation is occurring. Unfortunately, the license plate is grossly underutilized by law enforcement as a means to detect crime.
The 3M Traffic Safety Systems Division has recognized the crucial role that the license plate plays in crime detection and has partnered with the IACP’s Highway Safety Committee since 1998 in recognizing police officers who use license plates to solve serious, nontraffic crimes. Past Grand Prize Winners have been responsible for the captures of one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s “10 Most Wanted” and of one of the U.S. Marshals’ “15 Most Wanted Fugitives” in Canada, the prevention of a third homicide by an individual transporting two corpses in his vehicle’s trunk, and the apprehension of Timothy J. McVeigh just 75 minutes after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
The IACP’s Highway Safety Committee selected Sergeant Darron D. Conrad, of the Gloucester County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office, as the 2009 Grand Prize Winner of the Looking Beyond the License Plate award. He keenly observed, on October 22, 2008, a bug-splattered rear license plate on a vehicle. He correctly surmised that such a plate was consistent with one typically appearing on the front of a vehicle, queried the registration number via the Virginia Crime Information Network (VCIN), and found that the plate in question was registered to another vehicle. Initiating a traffic stop on the vehicle, Sergeant Conrad learned that its operator, who admitted that the bug-splattered plate belonged on a different vehicle, was driving on a suspended driver’s license. During the course of the stop, Sergeant Conrad detected the odor of marijuana in the vehicle; a subsequent search of both the driver and the vehicle revealed two morphine pills in one of the driver’s pockets, a fully-loaded handgun with its serial number obliterated in the driver’s door compartment, four baggies of marijuana, and a digital scale. The driver was charged with the following offenses: felony possession of a controlled substance (morphine), felony possession of a controlled substance without a valid prescription, possession with intent to sell marijuana, concealed weapon, and altering/defacing/destroying the serial number on a firearm.
Sergeant Conrad will be honored at the Highway Safety Awards Breakfast held during the 116th Annual IACP Conference in Denver and joins other distinguished police officers who elected, during the discharge of their patrol duties, to use license plate irregularities that resulted in significant arrests.
Notably, Sergeant Conrad was selected as the 2007 Looking Beyond the License Plate Grand Prize Winner for apprehending two suspects involved in the armed robbery and attempted first-degree murder of a Maryland restaurant manager. He is the only officer to have twice received this award.
Five other police officers will be recognized by the Highway Safety Committee judges in 2009 to receive “honorable mentions” for their initiative in solving serious crimes via this fundamental tool that is divorced from a driver’s race, ethnicity, or sex:
- Constable Robert Sinclair, Ontario Provincial Police, Canada (stopped a pickup truck displaying a dirty license plate on which the numbers were almost obscured and the corners of which were bent, seized 190 pounds of suspected raw marijuana with an estimated value of C$400,000, and linked the driver to a large-scale organized drug ring)
- Officer Carl T. Sanders, Houston, Texas, Police Department (located via a license plate query a stolen rental car at a motel, discovered a 14-year-old sexual assault victim, and arrested on the scene a 33-year-old violent sexual predator on whom four outstanding warrants existed)
- Master Trooper Brian K. Smith, Kansas Highway Patrol (initially stopped a vehicle without a license plate; subsequently observed a partially obscured temporary registration; arrested the driver on two outstanding felony warrants: a federal one relating to a South Carolina Ponzi scheme involving 420 victims defrauded out of $31 million, as well as a Kansas one charging larceny; and seized $68,000)
- Detective Rahim Williams, Baltimore City, Maryland, Police Department (from a possible license number provided by a kidnap and rape victim, positively identified the accused who then was linked to other rapes in Pennsylvania and who committed suicide in New York as he was about to be arrested)
- Officer Mark Nelson, California Highway Patrol (attempted to stop a vehicle not displaying a current validation tab on the license plate, apprehended after a short pursuit the driver who was wanted for three armed robberies, and recovered a bulletproof vest and methamphetamine)
Numerous serious crimes, like those highlighted by the Looking Beyond the License Plate award program, are resolved daily by officers doing their utmost to safeguard those they have chosen to serve professionally. Hopefully, the remarkable efforts described here will inspire chiefs and officers alike to avail themselves of an existing resource in their quest to apprehend criminals and reduce crime.
Share with 3M and the IACP’s Highway Safety Committee those arrests based on license plates and vie to become the 2010 Grand Prize Winner and to be honored at the 117th Annual IACP Conference in Orlando, Florida, October 23–27, 2010.
Applications for 3M’s 2010 Looking Beyond the License Plate award program for actions occurring between June 1, 2009, and May 31, 2010, can be completed online by accessing solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/Traffic_Safety/TSS/Solutions/Local_Gov/LBTLP. ■