8/20/2015Federal Appeals Court Defends Use Of License Plate Frames
Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals overturns conviction based on a traffic stop over a license plate frame.
Frames that cover a small portion of the lettering of a license plate are not illegal in Illinois under a ruling handed down Wednesday by the Seventh Circuit US Court of Appeals. A unanimous three-judge panel overturned the conviction of Rodolpho Hernandez Flores that stemmed from his being pulled over on April 4, 2014 on Interstate 55 in Madison County for having a frame around the license plate on his silver 1999 Dodge Durango.
At the time, Illinois State Police Trooper Nate McVicker noticed Hernandez Flores was driving under the 65 MPH speed limit. The officer's suspicions were aroused because, he claimed, Hernandez Flores was "very stiff and rigid" and "holding the steering wheel very tightly." So the trooper decided to pull the 46-year-old man over for the crime of driving with a frame on his license plate. The plate frame in question barely covered the letter "B" in "Baja California (view plate). The actual plate details were otherwise visible, and Trooper McVicker admitted that he could easily read it once he pulled closer to the Durango.
The trooper's stated reason for stopping Hernandez Flores after he could see the plate more clearly was that the frame could have been "covering another state or region above Baja California." Lawyers for Hernandez Flores insisted that this overly strict reading of the Illinois license plate law was absurd because it criminalized anything covering a letter on the plate, even a speck of dirt, and that the evidence obtained from the traffic stop should be suppressed. The Seventh Circuit agreed.
"We begin with the question whether Hernandez Flores's frame violated the plate‐display statute and conclude that it did not," Chief Judge Diane Pamela Wood wrote for the appellate panel. "Otherwise a substantial amount of lawful conduct would be illegal in Illinois. Plate frames... are common -- car dealerships regularly provide them with the cars they sell, and Illinois's public universities, sports teams, and schools sell them to students, fans, and families."
The court went on to find that it was unreasonable for the trooper to believe that there was any violation of state law in this case.
"Even though the frame covered a fraction of some letters, McVicker acknowledged that once he neared the car he could read 'Baja California' on the plate," Judge Wood wrote. "And based on the record photos in this case, that admission is one we would expect a reasonable officer to make."
The appellate judges reasoned that if they had ruled otherwise, it would effectively force every motorist with a license plate frame to take it off, or suffer the consequences.
"It seems to us unrealistic -- and unreasonable -- to expect a wide segment of the driving population to remove these conventional plate frames in order to avoid a traffic stop," Judge Wood wrote.
Hernandez Flores admitted that he had been paid $2000 to drive $125,000 worth of heroin from Mexico to Ohio, but he will likely escape conviction now that the evidence against him has been thrown out.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 300k PDF file at the source link below.