Justices: Police Can Conduct Stops for Obstructed License Plates

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that an obstructed license plate on the road does justify traffic stops by law enforcement. The decision settles several contradicting court precedents on an important matter of probable cause and citizen rights.

The 5-2 split decision concerned the case of Jermaine D. English. Orlando police had pulled English over due to a tag light and its wiring hanging over his license plate. During that traffic stop, the officers also found English in possession of marijuana, cocaine, and paraphernalia.

English’s counsel tried the argue that evidence against his clients should be suppressed because the officers had no probable cause to pull English over in the first place. The justices, however, disagreed. “We conclude that the plain language of (the section of state law) is clear and unambiguous, and requires that a license plate be plainly visible and legible at all times without regard to whether the obscuring matter is on or external to the plate,” wrote the majority in the case opinion.

Dissenting Voices & Precedents

Not every justice believed that the state law addressed incidents when license plates were unintentionally obstructed. Justice James E.C. Perry believed that law was intended to punish drivers who had intentionally defaced their license plate and that the majority’s interpretation of the law was far too broad. “Under the majority’s view, the licensing statute could lead to potentially outrageous results,” Justice Perry wrote in his opinion. “For example, families and avid bikers who utilize rear bike racks will now be guilty of unlawful activity if any part of the bicycle or bicycle rack—or the nylon straps which are used to secure the bike to the rack—covers the license plate. The possibilities under which law enforcement may now detain drivers under this statute are limited only by the imagination.”

English’s counsel had also pointed to a previous 2nd District Court of Appeal decision that involved circumstances similar to what Justice Perry describes. In that case, the court ruled that drivers whose license plates were blocked by a trailer hitch could not be pulled over by police for license plate obstruction. However, the court majority preferred a 2014 5th District Court of Appeal precedent which embraced a wider, zero-tolerance view of the law.

Do you believe the police did not have probable cause to pull you over or search your property? If so, it is critical that you explore you defense options with a proven West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney. At Herman Law, P.A., Attorney Ron D. Herman is a former prosecutor who now protects the rights and interests of the accused and ensures that every one of his clients has their voice heard before the law.

Want to learn more about what our firm can do for you during this uncertain time? Contact us today to request a free case evaluation.