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December 2015

How a tinted license plate cover led one Iowa State Trooper to solve a human trafficking case

 

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Iowa State Trooper Blair Paulsen was the recipient of the 2015 Looking Beyond the License Plate Award, which is awarded to an officer who stopped a vehicle because of a license plate violation that led the officer to discover a more heinous crime.

On Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, at approximately 8 a.m., Iowa State Trooper Blair Paulsen, 34, noticed a white Chevrolet cargo van traveling down the highway. A tinted license plate cover obscured his view of the plate. He also observed tinted side windows on the van, “props” (including a tool belt) set up in the back window of the van and a spare tire resting on top of the vehicle, all of which struck him as odd.

Because of the tinted license plate cover and the tinted windows, both violations of the law in Iowa, Paulsen pulled the van over. Little did he know he was about to uncover a human trafficking case involving a dozen people.

Had Paulsen not noticed the tinted license plate cover or tinted windows, he most likely would not have stopped the van in question. Paulsen’s case and a plethora of others highlight the important role the license plate can play in solving serious crimes. In fact, around 70 percent of all crimes that occur involve a motor vehicle in some facet.

Using His “Cop Senses”

When Paulsen pulled the vehicle over, he observed two men wearing orange mesh work vests sitting in the front seat. Between them, a woman without a seatbelt on sat perched atop a cooler. She did not speak any English and completely avoided eye contact with Paulsen. Once Paulsen began questioning the men, he noticed several inconsistencies in their stories, such as where they were coming from, how they knew each other, what type of work they were doing and how long they had been on the road.

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Anoop Gupta, global portfolio manager, 3M; Amber Steinert, marketing analyst, 3M; Trooper Blair Paulsen, Iowa State Patrol; and Commissioner Joseph Farrow, California Highway Patrol; at the IACP annual meeting in Chicago on Oct. 24, 2015.

“[The driver] was extremely nervous, to the point where he couldn’t sit still,” says Paulsen. “His breathing was very rapid.”

Paulsen peered into the back of the vehicle, which appeared to be empty with a dark colored blanket on the ground. Upon closer look, he noticed a brown work boot peeking out from underneath the blanket. “Just one shoe—that was all I could see,” he says. “So I knew right away that something wasn’t right.”

At that point, Paulsen called for backup because he believed more people were in the back of the van. He asked the driver if there were only three people in the car, to which the driver responded: “As far as I know.” Paulsen then asked the passenger how many people were in the van, and he said seven more.

The van’s doors were in the child safety lock position, so they could only be opened from the outside. Paulsen asked the passenger to open the van. Upon doing so, the trooper saw 12 people lying single file in the back, including a young boy who appeared to be about 6 years old.

“I think he was scared because when he saw me, he had that huge smile—it was literally ear-to-ear,” says Paulsen. Just as the young boy got up and began walking toward Paulsen, a man in the back of the van said something in Spanish and the young boy sat down.

“I’ll never forget when that door popped open and he was there and he saw me,” says Paulsen, who has children of his own. “Kids love law enforcement, generally speaking, and he came right toward me.”

Several other law enforcement officials arrived on the scene. Using a translator over the phone, Trooper John Hitchcock determined that the young boy’s name was Carlos and that he was not related to anyone in the van. The drivers told Carlos he was being taken to his mother in Las Vegas. Investigators later found out his mother, who they never did locate, had paid the drivers to take her son somewhere safe. In reality, many of the officers involved in the case reported having had the feeling that Carlos was not being taken somewhere safe, but rather into child labor or the sex industry.

“It may not have been something horrible, or it could have been,” says Paulsen. “We don’t know what the future would have held for the poor kid. We truly don’t.”

Soon afterward, the state troopers got in touch with the FBI’s Human Trafficking Task Force, which conducted interviews in Spanish with the van’s 15 occupants. The task force determined that all of the van’s inhabitants were in the country illegally and being trafficked to various locations. Seven of the occupants had deportation documents on file.

Eventually, officials connected Carlos with his extended family in the United States.

The License Plate Factor

Investigation of many serious crimes begins with a license plate violation stop. This could include anything from missing front plates or expired plates to obscured plates, missing validation stickers and tinted license plate covers.

“The bottom line is that very significant criminal activity is oftentimes uncovered and solved—and significant convictions are made—as a result of what some people would deem a simple license plate stop,” says Brian Ursino, director of law enforcement at AAMVA.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, traffic stops accounted for around 44 percent of people who experienced face-to-face contact with police in 2008. In addition, approximately 85 percent of drivers who were pulled over by police in 2008 felt they had been stopped for a legitimate reason.

Without Paulsen’s knowledge, his lieutenant nominated him for an award for his police work—the Looking Beyond the License Plate Award sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Highway Safety Committee and 3M’s Traffic Safety and Security Division. The award is given to an officer who stopped a vehicle because of a license plate violation that led the officer to discover a more heinous crime.

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By stopping a van for having a tinted license plate cover and tinted windows, Iowa State Trooper Blair Paulsen uncovered a human trafficking case.

 

Ursino, who also is a Looking Beyond the License Plate judge, says the award encourages officers to look beyond the initial traffic violation stop. But perhaps more importantly, it documents the value of the license plate and shows the myriad ways crimes can be solved when a stop for a license plate violation is made.

Founded in 1998, the Looking Beyond the License Plate Award has seen entries for police work that solved homicides, serial burglaries, drug trafficking, human trafficking, a missing person case and more.

“Any kind of crime that has been committed can be discovered through a traffic stop, and a lot of traffic stops do start with a license plate violation,” Ursino says.

Amber Steinert, a marketing analyst with 3M who has worked with the award program for two years, says she thinks one of the award’s biggest benefits is that it makes people realize just how big an impact such a small item can have.

“License plates seem so miniscule in the grand scheme of things,” she says. “You tend to overlook them—you don’t really think of the value they can have until you hear these stories.”

While administrators encourage their officers to look beyond the initial stop and use their “cop senses,” some have a propensity to get tunnel vision around the reason why they stopped the car in the first place. Good police officers look beyond that initial stop to be aware of everything happening at the scene.

For Paulsen, the whole encounter reminds him of an adage he has heard many times in the past: expect the unexpected. He says that in working on an interstate system, you never know who you’ll run into.

“The biggest [lesson] for me was that during every stop you make out here, you never know what you may run into or how you may affect somebody’s life,” he says.