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May 16 — A law making it illegal to deface, mutilate or put “obscuring matter” over a vehicle's license plate gives police the authority to stop a car where a loose license plate light interfered with the officers' ability to read the tag, a divided Florida Supreme Court ruled May 12.
The decision gives officers broad latitude to stop vehicles for any obstruction even though the motorist hasn't physically altered or marred the plate.
The plain language of Fla. Stat. § 316.605(1) clearly and unambiguously requires that a license plate be plainly visible and legible at all times regardless of whether the “obscuring matter” is external or actually on the plate itself, the 5-2 majority said in an opinion by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.
The decision resolves a split in the lower courts.
In a dissent joined by Justice Barbara J. Pariente, Justice James E. C. Perry argued that the legislature only intended to prevent motorists from physically altering their plates and that the new interpretation gives cops “unfettered discretion” to stop vehicles.
“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 police stopped Jermaine English after noticing that the drooping light would swing to the side when the vehicle turned but blocked at least one letter on the plate once the vehicle finished its turn.
The trial court granted English's suppression motion, saying that there was no violation because the officers could read the plate once they stopped the vehicle. “So even if you get out of your car and walk to the car, as soon as you can see the numbers, then that satisfies your need for your probable cause,” the trial court said.
The Public Defender's Office, Daytona, Fla., represented English. The Attorney General's Office represented the state.
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