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Jon Gambrell Associated Press Writer
Published: 20 May 2009


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- A partially obscured license plate gave police enough reason to pull over a Hispanic driver, Arkansas' highest court ruled Thursday, overturning a state Court of Appeal's ruling in a case one judge described as racial profiling.


The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that evidence gathered during a 2007 traffic stop in Pope County could be used against driver Martin Hinojosa. Hinojosa pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, but appealed his sentence to the state's Court of Appeals, arguing Arkansas State Police Sgt. Kyle Drown didn't have enough probable cause to pull him over.


In October, the appeals court sided with Hinojosa and overturned a lower court judge's decision not to suppress evidence gathered during the traffic stop. Judge Wendell Griffen, then a part of the court, warned the stop appeared to be motivated by racial profiling.


However, in the court's ruling Thursday, Justice Elana Cunningham Wills did not touch on the issue of race. Instead, the former lawyer with the state attorney general' s office wrote that Arkansas law clearly stated that license plates should be clear from obstructions.


In Hinojosa's case, a license plate holder blocked the word ``Arizona'' from view, but Arizona's nickname -- the ``Grand Canyon state'' -- and a cactus were still visible on the plate. Drown testified that he had seen more than 100 Arizona license plates and that he recognized the plate as one from Arizona.


Despite Drown's personal experience, Wills wrote that didn't change the state's law.


``It is undisputed that Hinojosa's license plate obscured 'Arizona' ... therefore the license plate was not 'clearly visible' or 'clearly legible' as required,'' she wrote. ``Accordingly, Sgt. Drown did not lack probable cause to stop Hinojosa's vehicle.''


Wills also rejected Hinojosa's claim that since his vehicle was registered out of state, it wasn't required to follow Arkansas law.


Drown pulled Hinojosa over in Pope County on Jan. 27, 2007. During the traffic stop, Hinojosa admitted to the state trooper that there was 300 pounds of marijuana hidden inside his truck.


Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday. Hinojosa, a Mexican national, also is wanted by federal immigration authorities, a state prison spokeswoman previously said.


Racial profiling remains a concern in Arkansas among the state's blacks, as well as the growing number of Hispanics moving into the state. The state Legislature passed a primary seat belt law this year. Lawmakers also passed a bill requiring the state attorney general's office to set up a racial profiling complaint hot line to assuage worries that the new law would be used to target minorities.

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