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US Appeals Court Outlaws Frames On God Bless America Plate
Three-judge federal panel declares an eagle frame on a God Bless America plate unlawful in Alabama.

God Bless America license plateA soaring eagle has no place on an Alabama "God Bless America" license plate, the Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled last month. A three-judge panel took up the case of Roger Lardrell McCullough, who was pulled over not because he had committed a driving offense or because a police officer saw him doing anything wrong, but because an automated license plate reader (ALPR, also known as ANPR in Europe) did not like the frame on his license plate. The District Court in Alabama issued a mandate last week reinstating McCullough's 24-year prison sentence.

McCullough had been driving his red Ford F-150 pickup truck on Interstate 85 in Lee County, Alabama on July 18, 2014. A camera mounted in the sheriff's department car parked on the side of the highway scanned passing vehicles. The machine complained when the truck passed, so officer Stanley Wilson decided to pursue.

McCullough immediately slowed down when the squad car pulled behind him. He exited the interstate and pulled over at a Travel Lodge parking lot. McCullough was ordered out of the truck for "officer safety" and placed under arrest while the truck was searched. Some marijuana and $8335 in cash was found.

The appellate court considered whether the initial stop over the license plate frame was legitimate. McCullough insisted that the details of his license plate were perfectly legible, and that anyone in Alabama -- where he was driving -- would immediately recognize the "God Bless America" plate. State law, he argued, only required the plate number to be "plainly visible."

"We disagree," Judge William Pryor wrote for the appellate court.

The text of the Alabama statute in question says "a license tag or license plate" must be plainly visible, which the three-judge panel reasoned left open the possibility that more than just the plate number must be left unobstructed. The word "Alabama" must also be visible, the court concluded.

"Even if McCullough is correct that Alabama law permits a driver to obscure certain portions of the license plate as long as the alphanumeric symbols are left 'plainly visible,' the stop was not unlawful because the officer's contrary conclusion was objectively reasonable," Judge Pryor wrote, implicitly referencing the US Supreme Court's Heien precedent (view case).

A copy of the ruling is available in a 90k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: US v. McCullough (US Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, 3/15/2017)

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