August 31st, 2022

Lehigh Valley Drivers – Make Sure Your License Plate Isn’t Covered

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently addressed the constitutionality of a traffic stop premised on an obscured license plate.  In Commonwealth v. Ruffin, a police officer initiated a traffic stop, citing Section 1332(b) of the Vehicle Code, which makes it unlawful to display a registration plate that is “obscured in any manner.”  75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1332(b)(3).  Following a search of the vehicle, the officer found a loaded gun and ammunition in the passenger’s pocket; the passenger did not have a valid permit to carry the gun.  The passenger was charged with various firearms-related offenses.

Defendant moved to suppress all evidence, on the basis that the initial vehicle stop violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Sections 8 and 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  More specifically, the defendant argued that the officer could read the numbers on his registration plate and identify the issuing state, as such there was no basis for the vehicle stop.  At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that the frame around the vehicle’s registration plate did NOT obstruct his ability to read any of the numbers but that it did obstruct the website listed on the bottom of the plate (i.e. the state tourism website).  The trial court granted suppression, finding there was no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to support the initial vehicle stop.  The Commonwealth appealed.

In a decision that has broad implications across the state, the Superior reversed the trial court’s suppression order, finding that the phrase “obscured in any manner” encompasses the entirety of the plate, rather than the issuing authority and vehicle-specific information.

Under this ruling, law enforcement officers are empowered to stop any vehicle with even a minor license plate obstruction.  Moreover, if a law enforcement officer suspects the driver of another crime, for example, a DUI, a minor license plate obstruction provides the necessary pretext for a stop where there might not otherwise be a basis.

How to avoid getting pulled over for a license plate obstruction:

Look at your license plate!  Decorative plate holders and even dealer-issued plate holders can partially obscure your license plate, such that they provide justification for a vehicle stop.  Make sure your license plate is free of dirt or other debris.  Remove screening devices from your plate that obstruct automated plate readers.

As this recent case demonstrates, a vehicle stop can lead to other more serious charges.  Often DUI and minor controlled substance offenses start with a mere traffic violation.  Don’t put yourself at risk for a vehicle stop—double check your license plate!

If you are facing charges stemming from a traffic stop, call Gross McGinley’s experienced criminal defense legal team. We know that everyone makes mistakes and sometimes, our clients find themselves facing a situation that requires legal help.

Attorney Sara A. Moyer is a member of the Gross McGinley Criminal Defense team with years or knowledge and experience in successfully defending the rights of her clients.

The content found in this resource is for informational reference use only and is not considered legal advice. Laws at all levels of government change frequently and the information found here may be or become outdated. It is recommended to consult your attorney for the most up-to-date information regarding current laws and legal matters.