By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he license plate remains a vital, cost-effective, and readily identifiable law enforcement tool. Every U.S. state and Canadian province mandates its display, and information concerning one is accessible to police officers in real time. Noncompliance with a jurisdiction’s vehicle registration laws objectively provides probable cause to believe a violation is occurring and has been demonstrated time and again to be a gateway to clearing serious crime. This year’s Looking Beyond the License Plate grand prize winners and honorable mentions are no exception: They used a vehicle displaying one plate in a state requiring two, as well as a license plate absent a validation tab, one that was obscured, another that was stolen, and one more that was unlighted, to apprehend felons who had committed heinous violent crimes.
The 3M Traffic Safety Systems Division has recognized the crucial role that license plates play in crime detection and has partnered with the IACP Highway Safety Committee since 1998 to recognize police officers who use license plates to solve serious, nontraffic crimes. Past grand prize winners have been responsible for the capture of one of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, the capture of one of the U.S. Marshal’s 15 Most Wanted Fugitives in Canada, the prevention of a third homicide by an individual transporting two corpses in his vehicle’s trunk, the arrest of two suspects involved in the armed robbery and attempted first-degree murder of a Maryland restaurant manager, and the apprehension of Timothy J. McVeigh just 75 minutes after the bombing in 1995 of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The IACP Highway Safety Committee selected Corporal Timothy L. Clifford and Officer Andrew J. Nucelli, Arlington County, Virginia, Police Department, as the grand prize winners of the 2011 Looking Beyond the License Plate award. At approximately 4:00 a.m. on February 27, 2010, two young women were confronted by an unknown male who forced them at gunpoint into the house they were about to enter, restrained them, and forced one of them to leave with him. The other woman was able to call 9-1-1 on her cell phone. Four hours later, the abducted woman, suffering serious injuries, was located in Prince William County, Virginia.
Between February 4 and February 6, 2010, Corporal Clifford and Officer Nucelli, independent of one another, had observed a silver Dodge Durango—without the front license plate required in Virginia—prowling their beat at different times, one of which was during a heavy snowstorm. Corporal Clifford had checked the vehicle’s registration and also had observed its driver. The officers eventually discussed the vehicle, and Officer Nucelli immediately recognized that it matched the vehicle described during the neighborhood canvass in connection with the aforementioned February 27, 2010, abduction. He and Corporal Clifford immediately notified other officers, which resulted in 21-year-old Jorge A. Torrez being arrested within 12 hours of the abduction and just prior to his cleaning the vehicle and intending to dispose of crucial evidence in it.
The officers’ keen observations of the absence of a front license plate on a vehicle whose suspicious presence had piqued their interest, coupled with their sharing that information with other officers, resulted in the prompt arrest of Torrez; the recovery of critical evidence; and Torrez’s conviction in Arlington County on October 15, 2010, on 14 charges, including three on abduction with the intent to defile, three on forcible sodomy, two on robbery, one on rape, one on breaking and entering while armed, and four on weapons charges. The jury recommended five life sentences plus 168 years and a $190,000 fine. Torrez also was convicted of another attack in Arlington County that occurred on February 10, 2010; has additional charges pending in Prince William County in conjunction with the aforementioned February 27, 2010, abduction; and is under investigation for a double homicide in Illinois.
Five other police officers were recognized by the Highway Safety Committee judges in 2011 to receive honorable mentions for their initiative in solving serious crimes via this fundamental tool, which is divorced from a driver’s race, ethnicity, or sex.
- Trooper Daniel R. Nilon, Pennsylvania State Police (Lehighton Troop), on September 28, 2010, stopped a vehicle that displayed a stolen license plate. The driver was operating on a suspended driver’s license and with a stolen inspection sticker. He attempted unsuccessfully to dispose of a bag of marijuana. Trooper Nilon recovered from the vehicle a laptop that recently had been stolen in a burglary and was able to link the driver and numerous others to a three-county burglary ring responsible for more than 20 break-ins, the possession and sale of stolen firearms, the possession with intent to deliver crack and powder cocaine, and a November 2008 drive-by shooting.
- Sergeant John Sikoski, Austin, Texas, Police Department, on May 4, 2011, observed a vehicle with personal items strapped to its top, parked in an isolated portion of a hotel parking lot adjacent to a dumpster. He ran the front license plate and received a National Crime Information Center “hit” indicating that the vehicle was wanted in connection with a felony; that it possibly was being driven by 31-year-old Travis E. Forbes; and that all occupants should be held for the Denver, Colorado, Police Department’s Homicide Unit. Forbes was located and arrested for theft of the vehicle from Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Denver detectives executed a DNA search warrant on Forbes and another search warrant on the stolen vehicle he possessed and were able to interview him in connection with the April 1, 2011, disappearance of 19-year-old Kenia Monge, of Aurora, Colorado.
- On September 25, 2010, Sergeant Michael E. Vargas, San Diego, California, Police Department, stopped an older model Dodge Ram truck, which had its rear license plate partially obstructed by a tow hitch, for making an illegal turn. That plate belonged on a Mercury sedan. One of the three occupants fled the scene and was apprehended in possession of two handguns a week later, was on parole for robbery with a history of assaulting and evading police officers, was a documented Nazi Low Rider gang member, and was charged with three bank robberies. Sergeant Vargas held the others (a probationer and a parolee) until assistance arrived and found in the truck a loaded revolver and property thought to have been stolen. Subsequent investigation led officers to a nearby residence where an armed home invasion robbery had occurred just prior to Sergeant Vargas’s traffic stop.
- Trooper Robert L. Bailey, Pennsylvania State Police (Avondale Station), on February 14, 2011, attempted to stop a vehicle with an inoperative tag light; the vehicle was found to be unregistered. The vehicle failed to stop and was pursued at speeds of 90 miles per hour in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, where Trooper Bailey successfully used the Precision Intervention Technique maneuver to halt the vehicle. The driver, Curtis T. McCoy, was on probation in Pennsylvania for rape and kidnapping and was identified via the FBI Laboratory’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) as being wanted by the Miami-Dade County, Florida, Police Department for three counts each of sexual battery, armed kidnapping, and armed robbery in connection with a 1982 cold case.
- Officer Eric Katzin, Riverside, Illinois, Police Department, on March 9, 2011, observed a vehicle that was not displaying the required validation sticker on its license plate. He stopped the vehicle and discovered the Illinois registration had expired and the driver possessed no valid driver’s license. Eventually, through extensive inquiries, the driver was found to be wanted in North Carolina for parental abduction on February 19, 2010, of his then two- and four-year-old children, who were reunited with their mother.
Numerous serious crimes, like those highlighted by the Looking Beyond the License Plate award program, are resolved daily by officers doing their best to safeguard those whom they have chosen to serve professionally. Hopefully, the remarkable efforts described here will inspire chiefs and officers alike to use this existing resource—license plates—in their quest to apprehend criminals and reduce crime.
Share with 3M and the IACP Highway Safety Committee those arrests based on license plates and vie to become the 2012 grand prize winner, who will be honored at the 119th Annual IACP Conference in San Diego, California, September 29—October 3, 2012.
Applications for 3M’s 2012 Looking Beyond the License Plate award program for actions occurring between June 1, 2011, and May 31, 2012, can be completed online by accessing http://www.theiacp.org/About/Awards/LookingBeyondtheLicensePlateAwardProgram/tabid/343/Default.aspx. ■
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "License Plates Used to Apprehend Felons," Highway Safety Initiatives The Police Chief 78 October 2011): 136138.