Are Colorado drivers profiled for pot by law enforcement in other states?

DENVER - 7NEWS has discovered the answer to the question: Are Colorado drivers being pulled over and profiled by law enforcement in other states as result of the recent legalization of recreational marijuana?

Data from states neighboring Colorado show that there are, in fact, some areas where Colorado drivers are being pulled over at a higher rate.

Jessica Jones, 19-year-old college student, believes she was targeted for her green-and-white license plates when she was pulled over and searched by a Nebraska State Patrol Trooper in January.

"I think he had to make up a reason to pull me over, just because I had a Colorado license plate," Jones said.

Jones was pulled over on her way back to school at Chadron State College in northern Nebraska. She said the state trooper stopped her for speeding, searched her vehicle without her consent and told her she was driving with "the green badge of courage" on her license plate.

"I was still sitting in the back seat of his police car when he was writing my ticket, and he said that, 'Colorado drivers have the green badge of courage.' So, I think they definitely look for our license plates," said Jones. "They think that just because we're from Colorado, we're going to be transporting marijuana in our cars."

"Were you?" asked 7NEWS Investigative Reporter Amanda Kost.

"No," said Jones, "He didn't find anything in my car."

Jones isn't alone.

Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, many residents of the Centennial State, including Jones, have come forward claiming they were profiled for pot and, in some cases, illegally searched by law enforcement in other states because of their license plates.

A 7NEWS investigation reviewed traffic and marijuana seizure data from Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska.

Wyoming Highway Patrol records from all marijuana-related incidents on I-25 since 2008, show that Colorado drivers were cited for pot more than any other out-of-state drivers.

Wyoming Highway Patrol Marijuana Incidents, Top 3 States:

  • Wyoming Drivers= 130 marijuana related incidents
  • Colorado Drivers= 92 marijuana related incidents
  • Montana Drivers = 25 marijuana related incidents

*From 2008 - Feb 2014 there were a total of 294 Marijuana related incidents in Wyoming on I-25. Data from Wyoming Highway Patrol records.

7NEWS also obtained five years' worth of records from marijuana-related incidents on I-70 in Kansas from 2008 to June 2013. Although neither the Kansas Highway Patrol or statewide databases keep records designating where drivers are from, analysis of data from marijuana seizures indicates the largest number happened in Colby, Kansas. Colby is located just 50 miles from the border of Kansas and Colorado.

Three years of records from Nebraska State Patrol show Colorado drivers are cited for pot more than any other out-of-state drivers on I-80 in Nebraska.

In Deuel County, Nebraska, State Troopers busted more Colorado drivers for marijuana than in-state drivers. Since 2011, Colorado drivers were caught 37 times compared to 19 Nebraska drivers.

Marijuana Offenses in Deuel County, Nebraska

  • Total offenses: 131
  • Offenses involving Colorado drivers: 37
  • Offenses involving Nebraska drivers: 19

*Data from Nebraska State Patrol, detailing stops conducted by Nebraska State Troopers in Deuel County, Nebraska between January 2011 - March 2014

The State Patrol pulls over more Colorado drivers in Duel County, Nebraska than drivers from any other state, including Nebraska. In-state drivers were cited 490 times, while 577 citations were issued to Colorado drivers by Nebraska State Patrol in Deuel County.

Nebraska State Patrol Citations & Warnings/Violations Issued in Deuel County:

  • 2,400 citations total,  7,481 warnings/violations total
  • Colorado drivers: 577 citations, 1858 warnings/violations
  • Nebraska drivers: 490 citations, 1742 warnings/violations

*Data from Nebraska State Patrol, detailing stops conducted by Nebraska State Troopers in Deuel County, Nebraska between January 2011 - March 2014

Deuel County Sheriff Adam Hayward was surprised to learn the statistics for stops conducted by the Nebraska State Troopers in his county.

"You have the numbers, I'm sure they're true," said Hayward.

Hayward pointed out that that his department operates separately from the Nebraska State Patrol. 

"Do we stop people with Colorado plates? Absolutely. If they're speeding or whatever, we'll stop them and give them a speeding ticket. But do we automatically stop people with Colorado plates because we think they have marijuana? No," said Hayward.

Sheriff Hayward runs his own department that includes three deputies. 7NEWS asked Sheriff Hayward if his deputies were trained to avoid profiling drivers.

"Right, because profiling is only going to get you in trouble, and it's going to bring up issues and it's going to make bad case law," said Hayward. "There's no reason to push the issue, or profile, or make up reasons to stop people. There are so many people out there that are carrying the marijuana product out of Colorado that I mean, if you just are out there, stopping vehicles for (a) legal reason, you know, you stop, 4-5 vehicles, you're going to run into somebody that has it."

From January 2011 to March 2014, Colorado drivers were issued 334 marijuana citations by the Nebraska State Patrol throughout the counties surrounding I-80. Nearly one out of every two of those Colorado drivers busted for possession had one ounce or less of marijuana.

"I didn't want it to go on my record, for the same reasons I don't want my identity shown today," said a Colorado resident who was cited for marijuana possession by the Nebraska State Patrol. He shared his story with 7NEWS and asked that his identity be concealed. 

The Colorado driver said Nebraska law enforcement stopped his vehicle because of a license plate obstruction. "It's just slightly raised up in the middle and it might cover a couple letters of Colorado," he explained.

He consented to a search, after the officer issued a courtesy citation for the license plate obstruction, which is similar to a warning, and included no requirement for the driver to correct the "vehicle/license defect." During the search the officer found a cigarette pack-size box containing less than an ounce of marijuana inside the vehicle.

"I'm sure that he just saw my Colorado plate and just wanted to pull me over and check it. I think everybody now in Colorado knows somebody that has been pulled over and searched just for being a Colorado resident," he said.

Deuel County Sheriff Adam Hayward says law enforcement is required to have a legal reason to stop and search a vehicle.

"The reason we're searching these vehicles is generally because of the odor," said Hayward. "When you walk up to the vehicle, and as soon as they roll down that window to give the driver's license, registration, I mean, that overwhelming odor. If there's marijuana in the vehicle, you can smell it. If I'm not 100 percent sure that's what I'm smelling, I don't push the issue. It's not worth it because, stop two or three more cars, and you're going to find it anyway."

Hayward said he views Colorado drivers no differently than drivers from any other state.

"So it's not that we're stopping them saying, 'Hey can I search your vehicle cause you're from Colorado?' I mean if there's probable cause there, yes we'll search it. If there's not, we just write the ticket or the warning and send them down the road," said Hayward.

"What goes through your mind when you see Colorado plates?" asked Kost.

"Nothing, really," said Hayward.

"Am I (as a Colorado driver) more likely to be pulled over, than any other driver?" asked Kost.

"No, not in my county," answered Hayward.

"So, you're saying that Colorado plate profiling is not happening in your county. Would you agree that it's happening in other places?" asked Kost.

"I would," responded Hayward, "Videos that we've been seeing on TV about, where people [law enforcement officers] are basically stopping them [drivers] saying, 'You're from Colorado, so I think something's up,' those officers don't know what they're doing and they make a bad name for the rest of us."

Dashboard camera video released in April revealed what happened during a routine traffic stop involving Colorado resident Darien Roseen. An Idaho State Police Trooper pulled Roseen over and approached the vehicle at a rest stop in January 2013. 

Trooper: "Why are your eyes glossy today? You're eyes are glossy, you just tired?"

Trooper: "When's the last time you've used marijuana, sir?"

Roseen: "I've never used marijuana in my entire life."

The video from the traffic stop was released following a federal lawsuit that Roseen filed against Idaho State Police, Trooper Justin Klitch and several other law enforcement agencies. In the lawsuit, Roseen claims he was targeted for his Colorado license plates when Trooper Klitch began following him as he crossed into Idaho from Oregon on Interstate 84. Roseen claims he was searched because of his Colorado license plates, and did nothing to warrant the traffic stop. Roseen's lawyer declined to comment regarding the lawsuit.

Marijuana industry attorney Sean McAllister claims Colorado license plate profiling is a growing problem. 

"It is certainly a problem. We know that in other states, there are lawsuits that have been filed to challenge the stops of cars based on a Colorado license plate. I have many clients tell me that in Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming the first thing people, law enforcement, will say to them when they get pulled over is, 'Where's the marijuana?" said McAllister.

McAllister said he is representing several Colorado residents who claim to have been profiled by law enforcement in other states. McAllister has warned his clients before they leave the state of Colorado.

"There's only two simple rules. You just never consent to search without a warrant, and you never make a statement without your lawyer present," said McAllister, "There's no doubt when you leave Colorado with a license plate from this state, that other states are looking harder at your car than other cars."

Said Deuel County Nebraska Sheriff Adam Hayward, "I think it's [a] lack of training and overzealous officers, you know, wanting to find that Colorado weed, because everybody else is, and they want to. We have to have legal reason to stop that vehicle and search it."

Jones shared her experience to serve as a warning for other Colorado residents.

"I think they should be ready to be pulled over," said Jones.

State Patrol representatives in Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas told 7NEWS they have not changed any policies regarding Colorado drivers since recreational marijuana became legal. They claim they're not doing anything differently.

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