Most of our traffic laws in Florida are well-intentioned and are motivated by a desire to protect the motoring public. On the other hand, the law regarding license plate holders does not appear to have any rational relationship to insuring a safe driving environment. A recent Third District Court of Appeal opinion about this statute leads to the conclusion that it serves no other purpose beyond giving law enforcement the opportunity to pull motorists over who are otherwise obeying Florida’s traffic laws.
License plate covers are governed by two Florida statutes. Florida Statute 316.605 provides, in pertinent part, that the license plate shall be fastened to the vehicle in such a “manner as to prevent the plates from swinging, and all letters, numerals, printing, writing, the registration decal, and the alphanumeric designation shall be clear and distinct and free from defacement, mutilation, grease, and other obscuring matter, so that they will be plainly visible and legible at all times 100 feet from the rear…”
Florida Statute 320.061 provides that “a person may not alter the original appearance of a … license plate …, whether by mutilation, alteration, defacement, or change of color or in any other manner. A person may not apply or attach a substance, reflective matter, illuminated device, spray, coating, covering or other material onto or around any license plate which interferes with the legibility, angular visibility, or detectability of any feature or detail on the license plate.”
See our previous article: Your Vehicle's Decorative License Plate Frame Could Result in a Traffic Ticket
The Pena Decision
The facts of the Pena case are rather simple, and not in dispute. The defendant was operating a motor vehicle in the Miami area. He was stopped by law enforcement after a police officer observed that the vehicle had a metal license plate frame that obscured the words “MyFlorida.com” on the top of the plate and “Sunshine State” on the bottom. During the traffic stop, law enforcement discovered that the driver had a suspended license. A subsequent search of the car, based upon “an odor of marijuana” (no marijuana was discovered in the car) revealed the presence of a bag of Alprazolam pills, for which the defendant did not have a prescription. The defendant’s counsel filed a Motion to Suppress, challenging the legality of the traffic stop. This motion was granted by the trial court and all evidence, including the pills and confession, were suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Essentially, the Court’s granting of the Motion to Suppress had the effect of dismissing the felony charge against the defendant. The State then appealed this ruling.
An appeal of a final order from a felony trial court is filed with the applicable “District Court of Appeal.” In this particular case which occurred in Miami, the Third District Court of Appeal had jurisdiction over the matter. The appellate court reversed the decision of the trial court, finding that the 2014 version of the statute specifically prohibited a motorist from obscuring the word “Florida” on his or her license plate. The court cited to a 1957 Florida Supreme Court case that “the Legislature, under its police power to protect the public from dangerous instrumentalities using the highways, has imposed rigid restraints, regulations, and restrictions upon the use of motor vehicles.
The Legislature Broadened the Scope of this Law
The court in Pena reversed the trial court because, at the time, Florida Statute 316.605(1) specifically provided that the word “Florida” could not be obstructed. Effective January 1, 2016, the statute was amended so as to remove the words “and other identification marks upon the plates regarding the word ‘Florida.’” Thus, this amendment had the effect of prohibiting a motorist from having a license plate that covered any and all “letters, numerals, printing, writing,” etc.
WTSP 10 News Interviews Russo, Pelletier & Sullivan Senior Partner Marc Pelletier
On Wednesday, May 10, 2018, Attorney Marc Pelletier was contacted by WTSP 10 News regarding his input on the recent Pena decision. Mr. Pelletier offered this practical tip to viewers of the Tampa Bay News outlet: “if you have a license plate cover on your vehicle, take it off.” With the current state of the law, an obstruction of any number or letter on your license plate, regardless of the readability of the license plate number on the tag, will allow the police to conduct a traffic stop and have non-consensual contact with an otherwise law abiding citizen.
If you have been charged with a crime following a traffic stop, we are lawyers that can help!
If you have been arrested for a criminal offense following a traffic stop, our Pinellas County Criminal Defense team can help. Call us at 727-578-0303 to schedule a free consultation to discuss how we can best defend your case.