A lot of serious criminal arrests are the result of simple, seemingly harmless traffic stops. Many drug cases and gun cases originate from simple traffic violations that lead to traffic stops that lead to criminal investigations and searches and seizures. Of course, most DUI arrests are also the result of simple traffic stops.
In a case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was driving a vehicle with a trailer hitch. A police officer driving 25 feet behind him noted that he could not read the defendant’s complete license tag due to it being partially blocked by the trailer hitch. For that reason, the police officer pulled the defendant over. After some investigation and a search of his vehicle, the police officer arrested the defendant for possession of marijuana and possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana and cocaine alleging that the police officer did not have a legal basis to stop the defendant based on a partially obscured tag caused by a trailer hitch. Florida law provides that all vehicles must be properly licensed and all of the letters and numbers on the license tag must be clear and free from any obscuring matter so they can be plainly visible and legible at least 100 feet from the vehicle. The criminal defense attorney pointed to a prior case which interpreted this law to mean that the license plate itself cannot have anything on it that would obscure the letters or numbers. Therefore, a trailer hitch, which is not actually on the license plate, would not violate this law. However, the court in this case, which has precedence over Jacksonville, Florida, held that the intent of the law is that the license tag must be clearly visible from at least 100 feet away. If something is blocking it, either on the actual license plate or external to the license plate, the law is being violated. As a result, the court found that the initial stop was valid due to a partially obscured license plate, whatever the reason for the obscurity may have been.
Based on this ruling, people need to be aware that if anything is obstructing a police officer’s vision of any letters or numbers on a license plate, whether it is on the license plate, in front of the license plate or something being towed by the vehicle, a police officer has a legal right to make a traffic stop.