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Iowa Supreme Court Criminalizes License Plate Frames
Highest court in Iowa supports pulling over and searching cars that have a license plate frame that partially covers the county name.

Iowa license plate
Iowa's highest court considered a simple question: Can cops pull over and search motorists solely because their license plate frame partially covers up the name of the county on the plate? The divided court's answer on Friday was, yes.

On July 7, 2009, Davenport Police Officers Craig Burkle and Jason Ellerbach an anonymous tip that a black man in a red Jeep was a "slinging dope," so the officers needed to come up with a pretext to pull over the red Jeep Cherokee they saw on the highway being driven by Craig E. Harrison. The plate number 994RDB appeared clearly and distinctly on the Jeep, but a frame covered up the plate's county of registration.

The officers decided the frame was a good reason to pull Harrison over, a conceit that Scott County District Court Judge C.H. Pelton tossed out as absurd, though a subsequent judge considering the case at trial allowed the stop based on the reasonable suspicion of drug dealing. Through the appeals process over the next five years, other judges found the plate stop legitimate. Harrison appealed, arguing the "numerals and letters" on his plate were fully visible, and that is all that is required by law.

"It is unlawful for the owner of a vehicle to place any frame around or over the registration plate which does not permit full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate," Iowa Code section 321.37 states.

Harrison's lawyers showed how other sections of the vehicle code distinguishes "letters and numbers" from the "name" of the state and county. Had the state legislature intended to apply the frame restriction to everything visible on the plate, it could have said so more directly. Certain plate types, such as collegiate, fire fighter and military plates, are printed without the county name, proving it is not considered to be essential information. The high court majority did not buy this argument, insisting the county name is essential.

"While a person who sees a driver commit a crime may not be able to remember a complete license plate number, the person may be more easily able to recall the county name," Justice Thomas D. Waterman wrote. "This would narrow the search to identify the vehicle. The county name on a plate also shows whether a vehicle is registered locally or not, which may be relevant in identifying suspicious behavior."

The majority concluded that the plain meaning of the statute applied to the name of the county. Justice Brent R. Appel disagreed with his colleagues, saying their reading of the text was "plausible" but missed the bigger picture. The Iowa Supreme Court has never directly considered the question of whether a purely pretextual traffic stop is valid under the state constitution.

"The take-away point for Iowa citizens is that they better go out to the garage and check their license plate frames if they want to avoid being pulled over by law enforcement on the open road," Justice Appel wrote. "For the thousands of Iowans who have a frame that promotes a sports team, or an auto dealer, or have a nice (or not so nice) slogan, beware! If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate, the state will take the position that police may stop the vehicle anywhere and at any time, whether one is dropping the kids off at school, returning home from the football game, or on the way to work, without any further sign of criminal wrongdoing."

A copy of the decision is available in a PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Iowa v. Harrison (Iowa Supreme Court, 5/2/2014)

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