5/6/2013Iowa Supreme Court Approves Use Of Tinted License Plate Covers
Highest court in Iowa confirms use of tinted license plate covers is legal.
Motorists can use a license frame with a tinted cover, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in an April 26 ruling. The court considered the case of Tommy Tyler Jr. whose white Cadillac Escalade was stopped at 2am on October 13, 2010 as it was driving along Merle Hay Road in Johnston. Officer Brad Lowe, who was waiting in the parking lot of Dragon Car Wash, recognized the Escalade that he had pulled over two days earlier over its plate cover.
"It appeared the vehicle had a tinted license plate cover on the front of the license plate," Officer Lowe testified. "I then pulled out behind the vehicle and also noticed that it had a license plate cover obstructing the view of the plate on the rear as well."
Before getting out of his squad car, Officer Lowe called in the license plate to dispatch, showing he could easily read the plate number and see the registration stickers. Iowa allows traffic stops to occur if, from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, a traffic violation was committed. Here, Officer Lowe cited Iowa Code 321.37 as the sole basis for the stop, arguing that the state banned tinted plates. The justices ruled this a mistake.
"In fact, the cited code section does not proscribe tinted license plate covers. Rather, it proscribes placement of any frame or cover 'which does not permit full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate,'" Justice Bruce B. Zager wrote for the court. "Officer Lowe told Tyler during the stop that he had pulled him over because of tinted license plates. Tinted license plates are not a violation of Iowa law, and the state does not contend otherwise."
State prosecutors attempted to provide several arguments in their briefs suggesting the traffic stop was reasonable. One argument suggested there could have been dirt on the license plate that made it unreadable from a distance. The court brushed these aside.
"Again, the evidence is to the contrary as the videotape shows no foreign materials on the plate," Justice Zager wrote. "It is not Tyler's responsibility to prove a negative -- that there was no conceivable reason for a stop."
At trial, Tyler brought in expert witnesses to prove his plate was clear and readily visible at night. The high court was persuaded that the trial court was wrong and that Officer Lowe could read the plate, contrary to his claim at trial.
"The officer's testimony that there was a 'glare' and that the plates were occasionally 'blurry' does not indicate any difference between Tyler's covered plate and an uncovered license plate," Justice Zager wrote. "If we were to hold that an officer's mistaken conclusion that any plate that gave off a glare or was blurry in the intermittent brightness of street lights at 2:00 in the morning had an illegal cover, we would be giving law enforcement officers carte blanche to pull over any motorist at any time, as sunlight could also cause glaring and blurriness on an uncovered plate. We decline to extend the authority of law enforcement officers to execute traffic stops based on the facts as described in this case."
The court noted that Officer Lowe admitted he was targeting the Escalade because he had stopped it before. Tyler suggested he was stopped for driving while black. The court let that slide, because with no objectively reasonable fact suggesting the plate was obscured, the evidence from the traffic stop was suppressed leaving prosecutors with no basis to maintain Tyler's drunk driving conviction.
A copy of the decision is available in a 125k PDF file at the source link below.