Is your license plate breaking the law?

The state appellate court has ruled to affirm the right of police officers in Pennsylvania to stop drivers if any part of their license plate is obscured. Not just the letters and numbers that make up a license plate, the entire plate. The, the paint around it…any part of it.

The vehicle code states that it’s unlawful to display a license plate so dirty that its numbers and letters are illegible from a reasonable distance, or is obscured in a way that a red light camera or toll collection system can’t read it; or “is otherwise illegible at a reasonable distance or is obscured in any manner.”

In their ruling, the three-judge panel focused on the phrase “or is obscured in any manner,” which they said was a catchall phrase meant to prohibit all obstructions of any part of the plate. If the legislature only wanted to prohibit just obstructions to the license plate number and issuing authority, it would have specifically done so.

“While we appreciate Appellee’s position that § 1332 (of the vehicle code) should be limited to the elements of a registration plate that are actually pertinent to the identification of a vehicle’s registration, that interpretation does not comport with a plain reading of the statute,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes

Technically, a large portion of PA car owners are breaking the law

As it stands now if your license plate has a frame around it either installed by the dealer you bought your car from or an Eagles frame, maybe a #1 Granddad frame you installed, is breaking the law as it is now interpreted. And police have probable cause to pull you over because of it.

Dustin Slaughter, a spokesperson for Philadelphia District Attorney said the ruling “simply confirms current case law,” and does not enable officers to employ new or different tactics when conducting traffic stops.

However, the ruling itself states that the decision answers a novel question before the court. At the center of this decision is how to interpret the language of the vehicle code that prohibits a license plate from being obscured.

The ruling stems from a case involving an April 2021 traffic stop in Philadelphia during which a police officer pulled over a car because the strip at the bottom of the plate that lists was obstructed.

The driver of the car was charged with several crimes, including carrying an unlicensed firearm after a search of the vehicle revealed a loaded revolver, ammunition, and marijuana. The officer also found that the car was not registered and that the driver did not have a license.

A lower court, however, suppressed the evidence the officer recovered. The court found that the Philadelphia police officer lacked probable cause to make the stop because the state’s vehicle code only prohibits the obstruction of a license plate number and the plate’s issuing authority. The state’s tourism website did not count toward such a violation.

The Philadelphia District Attorney appealed the case to the state Superior Court and the three-judge panel disagreed.

Is your license plate breaking the law?




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