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Officer unreasonably concluded that frame around license plate violated plate-display statute

United States v. Rodolpho Hernandez Flores, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals No. 15-1515, 8/19/15 (per curiam)

Hernandez Flores was stopped for driving with an obstructed license plate because his rear plate was affixed to his car by a standard frame that covered the plate’s periphery. The stop violated the Fourth Amendment because it was based on an unreasonable mistake of law regarding the statute governing the display of license plates.

The Illinois plate‐display law, 625 ILCS 5/3‐413(b), provides that every registration plate must be “in a place and position to be clearly visible and shall be maintained in a condition to be clearly legible, free from any materials that would obstruct the visibility of the plate.” The frame around Hernandez Flores’s plate (visible in the picture helpfully supplied by the court on page 2 of the opinion) allowed the officer to see the plate numbers, somewhat obscured the words “Baja California,” and may have covered other words completely.

To prevail on his motion to suppress, Hernandez Flores must show both that his plate’s frame did not violate the law and that the officer unreasonably believed that it did. He has succeeded on both fronts:

We begin with the question whether Hernandez Flores’s frame violated the plate‐display statute and conclude that it did not. The Illinois Supreme Court has recently held that “trailer hitches, … wheelchair and scooter carriers, bicycle racks and rental trailers” will obstruct a license plate, but nonetheless plates obscured by these common car attach‐ ments do not violate the statute. People v. Gaytan, 32 N.E.3d 641, 650 (Ill. 2015). Otherwise “a substantial amount” of lawful conduct would be illegal in Illinois. Id. Plate frames like those in this case fall in the same category. Like rear‐mounted trailers, they are common—car dealerships regularly provide them with the cars they sell, and Illinois’s public universities, sports teams, and schools sell them to students, fans, and families. Rear‐mounted trailers can obstruct the entirety of “at least one of the numbers on the license plate.” Id. at 645. Plate frames, by contrast, generally surround the periphery of the plate, leaving the numbers and place of origin readable. If, as Illinois has determined, com‐ mon rear‐mounted trailers do not violate the statute, then neither can ordinary peripheral plate frames. See United States v. Edgerton, 438 F.3d 1043, 1050 (10th Cir. 2006) (rejecting strict reading of similar statute because it would lead to unreasonable conclusion that snow, rain, or fog would ren‐ der license plate illegal); Whitfield v. United States, 99 A.3d 650, 652 (D.C. 2014) (rejecting literal interpretation of similar statute that would “effectuate a near‐complete ban on the use of ubiquitous license plate frames”).

But was it reasonable for Officer McVicker to conclude that the plate’s frame violated this statute? We think not. Long before Gaytan, Illinois courts had held that the plate‐display statute requires only that the plate’s information be clearly visible and legible. People v. Miller, 611 N.E.2d 11, 20 (Ill. App. Ct. 1993) (plate must be clearly visible); People v. Bradi, 437 N.E.2d 1285, 1288 (Ill. App. Ct. 1982) (plate must be legible). ….[I]n this case, even though the frame covered a fraction of some letters, McVicker acknowledged that once he neared the car he could read “Baja California” on the plate. …. Even though some letters are not 100% unobstructed, “Baja California” is clearly visible and legible. If the frame does not impede a reasonable officer from reading a plate, then it is unreasonable to believe that the plate’s information is not clearly visible and legible.

The government replies that even though the uncovered information was readable, McVicker reasonably suspected that the frame masked information above the top lettering, so the entire plate was not clearly visible. But that possibility proves too much: it is true of all similar frames. If McVicker’s suspicion—that the frame covered “another state or region” in the plate’s periphery—were reasonable, then it would justify stopping any of the vast number of cars driven lawfully but affixing plates with the ubiquitous frames like the one in this case. A suspicion so broad that would permit the police to stop a substantial portion of the lawfully driving public, unless the drivers all removed their plate frames, is not reasonable. …. (Slip op. at 7-9).

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