2/16/2007Texas Appeals Court Allows Imprisonment for License Plate Frames
Texas Appeals Court ruling allows $200 fine for the use of license plate frames, or 6 months in jail time and $2000 fine for knowing use.
Driving a vehicle in Texas with a license plate frame or state-issued bumper-mount toll transponder could land you in jail following a state Court of Criminal Appeals ruling issued Wednesday. The court upheld a statute imposing a $200 fine for using common license plate frames. The law also ups the punishment for anyone found "knowingly" to have covered any image on a license plate, even to a "small degree," to a maximum $2000 fine and six months in jail.
Police stopped motorist Craig Hill Johnson in 2003 because of his license plate frame, which had been installed by the dealership that sold him his car. It covered a small space shuttle in the upper left corner of the plate, the top edge of the state name, and the "Lone Star State" motto at bottom. The tag numbers themselves were not obscured in any way.
According to state law, no "design feature" on the plate may be obscured. The court argued that because the legislature specifically intended to make it illegal to cover up any "pictorial design," the plain language of the law does not lead to an absurd result.
"The Legislature might have wished to require the entire design of a license plate to be displayed to help facilitate the quick detection of counterfeits," the opinion stated. "License plates are primarily functional items, and it is not unreasonable to prohibit decorative items or accessories that affect that functionality even to a small degree."
In 2003, Texas Representative Peggy Hamric, House sponsor of the original legislation, issued a statement clarifying that the purpose of the law was to promote photo enforcement. "The intent of the bill was not to make license frames a crime, so long as the letters, numbers, and state name are readable," she stated.
The court acknowledged that their ruling could subject thousands of motorists to large fines or even jail time. "We are also aware that the plain reading of the statute that we accord today... may mean that a small percentage of vehicles in this state do not currently comply with the law," the court stated.
Among the victims of the ruling are motorists who use a state-issued TxTag toll transponder mounted on their bumper. The bumper mount, required on vehicles with windshields that block transponder signals, covers the word "Texas" on the license plate. Other motorists subject to fines include those with dirty plates that obscure small items such as a star or oil rig images on the plate.
IN THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS OF TEXAS
THE STATE OF TEXAS
CRAIG HILL JOHNSON, Appellee
ON APPELLEE'S PETITION FOR DISCRETIONARY REVIEW FROM THE FOURTH COURT OF APPEALS, GILLESPIE COUNTY
Keller, P.J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which PRICE, WOMACK, KEASLER, HERVEY, HOLCOMB and COCHRAN, JJ., joined. JOHNSON, J., filed a concurring opinion. COCHRAN, J., filed a concurring opinion in which PRICE and JOHNSON, JJ., joined. MEYERS, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
Does a motorist violate the law when a license plate frame obscures or partially obscures some aspect of the original design of the license plate, such as the name of the issuing state, the state nickname, or a pictorial design? We answer that question "yes."
Appellee was stopped by a police officer solely because the license plate on his car was partially obscured by a license plate frame. The license plates on appellee's car were of the standard Texas design. The frame partially obscured the word "Texas," fully obscured the nickname "Lone Star State," and obscured a depiction of a space shuttle in a nighttime sky. A black-and-white copy of an exhibit depicting the license plate with the frame is attached to this opinion. After the stop, the officer determined that appellee was intoxicated and arrested him for driving while intoxicated.
Before his trial, appellee moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the stop on the ground that his car's license plate was not displayed in violation of the law. The trial court granted the motion, and the State appealed. The court of appeals reversed, holding that appellee had violated Texas Transportation Code §502.409(a)(7). (1)
We read a statute in accordance with the plain meaning of its language, unless the language is ambiguous or the plain meaning leads to absurd results that the Legislature could not have possibly intended. (2) The Transportation Code provides in relevant part: "A person commits an offense if the person attaches to or displays on a motor vehicle a number plate or registration insignia that . . . has a coating, covering, or protective material that: . . . (B) alters or obscures the letters or numbers on the plate, the color of the plate, or another original design feature of the plate." (3) Even if we assumed that the state name and nickname do not constitute "letters on the plate" within the meaning of this provision, (4) they, along with the pictorial designs, plainly constitute other original design features of the plate, the obscuring of which is prohibited by the statute.
Moreover, this reading of the statute does not lead to an absurd result that the Legislature could not have possibly intended. Subsection (B) of §502.409(a)(7) was added to the statute after the Fifth Circuit handed down its decision in Granado, which held that a motorist did not violate the law when his license plate frame obscured the name of the issuing state. (5) It is reasonable to infer that this provision may have been part of a legislative response to that decision. (6) Subsequently, in Contreras-Trevino, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the statutory amendment changed the legal landscape in which Granado had been decided, and held that the 2003 amendment to the Transportation Code proscribes the use of such license plate frames. (7)
We also observe that, although specialized and personalized plates are available, there are a limited number of designs, which are dictated by statute and by the Texas Transportation Commission. (8) The Legislature might have wished to require the entire design of a license plate to be displayed to help facilitate the quick detection of counterfeits. License plates are primarily functional items, and it is not unreasonable to prohibit decorative items or accessories that affect that functionality even to a small degree.
We are mindful of the proposition that criminal statutes outside the penal code must be construed strictly, with any doubt resolved in favor of the accused. (9) So was the court of appeals. (10) But "strict construction" does not mean that we ignore the plain meaning of the statutory language. (11) We are also aware that the plain reading of the statute that we accord today (and that was also accorded by the court of appeals in this case and by the Fifth Circuit) may mean that a small percentage of vehicles in this state do not currently comply with the law. Nevertheless, the timing and the plain language of the statutory amendment compel our conclusion.
The judgment of the court of appeals is affirmed.
Delivered: February 14, 2007
1. State v. Johnson, 198 S.W.3d 795 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2006).
2. Boykin v. State, 818 S.W.2d 782, 785 (Tex. Crim. App. 1991).
3. Tex. Transp. Code §502.409(a)(7)(B).
4. A different subsection within the same statute specifically proscribes conduct with regard to both the "letters and numbers on the plate" and "the name of the state." Tex. Transp. Code §502.409(a)(6).
5. See United States v. Granado, 302 F.3d 421, 424 (5th Cir. 2002); Contreras-Trevino, 448 F.3d 821, 823-824 (5th Cir. 2006)(discussing the effect of amendments to §502.409 on its prior decision in Granado).
6. The legislature also amended §502.409(a)(6), in part to add language referring to "the name of the state in which the vehicle is registered." See Contreras-Trevino, 448 F.3d at 823.
7. Id. at 823.
8. See Tex. Transp. Code §502.052 (designs selected by Texas Transportation Commission); §504.102 (relating to personalization of specialty plates); see also Tex. Transp. Code, Ch. 504, generally (various specialty plates dictated by the Legislature).
9. Thomas v. State, 919 S.W.2d 427, 430 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996); cf. Tex. Pen. Code § 1.05(a)("The rule that a penal statute is to be strictly construed does not apply to this code.").
10. Johnson, 198 S.W.3d at 797.
11. Thomas, 919 S.W.2d at 430.
Meyers, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
This statute makes it an offense to attach or display a license plate that has a covering that alters or obscures the original design of the plate. However, nowhere in the statute does it say who is violating the statute if the car has such a license plate cover. Is it the person who put the cover around the license plate? (1) Is it the car's owner? Is it the driver of the car? The statute does not make this clear. While other statutes clearly state that it is the driver who is committing an offense by operating a vehicle in violation of a statute, (2) section 502.409 says that a person commits an offense if he "attaches" or "displays" a license plate covering that obscures the design. This ambiguity in the statute makes it unconstitutionally vague. As a result, it should not be used as the basis for a stop. I respectfully dissent.
1. This type of license plate frame is often put on the car by the dealership. Is it the dealership who is violating the statute by displaying the plate with a covering that obscures the original design? Is it the specific guy at the dealership who actually screwed the frame over the license plate? Because the statute specifies that it is an offense to attach to a vehicle a plate that has a covering that obscures a design feature, perhaps Frank Parra should be arrested for violating the statute as well.
2. See Texas Transportation Code section 521.457; section 545.412; section 601.191. See also Texas Transportation Code section 601.371 (stating that the owner of a vehicle with suspended registration commits an offense if he knowingly permits the vehicle to be operated on the highway).