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When a Florida License Plate Has Superfluous Words Obscured, Can the Police Pull That Vehicle Over?

We wrote a blog post several months ago about a case where a police officer in Florida stopped a driver because some of the unnecessary letters on the license plate were obscured. In other words, the letters and numbers that make up the unique information on a license plate that identified the vehicle and owner were perfectly visible. However, in Florida, there is often other wording on the license plate. It might say “Sunshine State” or provide the website “MyFlorida.com” on the plate. Obviously, these words/letters are irrelevant to the purpose and requirement of a license plate. In the prior case, the driver had a border around his license plate that obscured some of this other wording, and the police officer pulled the driver over as a result and arrested him for an unrelated crime. The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress claiming the stop was illegal, and kind of ridiculous, but the defendant lost because the Florida statute said none of the wording can be concealed on a license plate.

It looks like there has been a new case on the matter. This is an important issue because a lot of people have license plates where some of the letters are concealed. Many people have license plate frames that are advertisements or display their favorite sports teams. These often conceal part of the license plate in Florida. This may give the police free reign to pull the driver over, which often gives the police reign to search the vehicle. Remember, if the police want to search your vehicle, that is probably what they are going to do regardless of whether they are permitted to do so under the Fourth Amendment.

This new case occurred south of Jacksonville, Florida. A police officer stopped a driver who had a border around his license plate that was an advertisement for the place where he purchased the vehicle. It partially obscured the words “Sunshine State”. The important letters and numbers of the license plate were perfectly visible. The police officer found cocaine in the vehicle and arrested the driver for possession of cocaine. The criminal defense attorney moved to suppress the evidence of the cocaine arguing that the stop was invalid. The question comes down to whether these license plate frames or borders are illegal and a basis for the police to make a traffic stop when they conceal superfluous wording on the license plate.

The Florida statute says all letters, numbers and printing (along with the registration decal, of course) must be clear from obstruction and plainly visible from at least 100 feet. The criminal defense attorney argued that the frame only partially obscured the “Sunshine State” and “MyFlorida.com” wording. At the hearing, the police officer testified that he could still read the words “Florida” and “Sunshine State” and obviously had no problem reading the letters and numbers that needed to be identified. As a result, the court sided with the defendant. The bottom line is that police were using this law as a pretext to stop drivers. The clear intent of the law is to make sure people do not conceal the unique part of the license plate that specifically identifies the vehicle and the owner. The court could have interpreted this statute strictly to give the police a baseless reason to pull people over, but fortunately, the court decided not to do that. The court also noted that license plate frames will usually conceal part of the unnecessary wording on license plates, at least the Florida plates, and if the state legislature wanted to outlaw these frames, they would have made them illegal. They have not done so.