Florida Court: License Plate Bracket Justifies Car Stop, Search

Police officers must have reasonable suspicion to believe that you’re committing a crime in order to stop your car on the road. They need to have probable cause—a higher bar—to actually search the car. These are two important protections for anyone suspected of or charged with a Florida crime. But, as the state’s Third District Court of Appeal recently pointed out, there are many ways in which the cops can legally stop your car and search it.

Defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell, manufacture or deliver a controlled substance after a police officer found Xanax pills in Defendant’s car. The officer, who was in an unmarked car investigating unrelated crimes in the area, said he originally pulled Defendant over because he noticed part of Defendant’s license plate was obscured. A metal frame was blocking “MyFlorida.com” from the top portion of the license plate and “Sunshine State” from the bottom portion. The officer said he searched the car because he smelled marijuana inside.

A trial judge agreed with Defendant that the search was illegal. As a result, the judge granted Defendant’s request to suppress all of the evidence gained during the stop, including the Xanax pills. The Third District reversed that decision on appeal, however, finding that state law gave the officer the right to pull Defendant’s car over.

Specifically, the law requires the word “Florida” to be “clear and distinct and free from defacement, mutilation, grease, and other obscuring matter” on a license plate, so that it can be “plainly visible” from up to 100 feet away. Because Defendant’s license plate was obscured at the time, the officer acted within his authority to stop Defendant’s car.

The court shared the concern of the fifth district court, as well as the trial court, stating that “license plate rims and frames are a common practice of long-standing” among Florida citizens. They are often supplied by car dealers, the court noted, and citizens who would otherwise be considered law-abiding commonly install them to show allegiance to or support for a club, fraternity, college or sports team. This, the court indicated, is a means of self-expression. Ultimately, however, the court explained that the legislature is the body that gets to make laws to govern Florida public roads and highways.

The court distinguished the case from a 1997 decision in which the Fifth District said a police officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion to pull over a car because the county name was obscured on the vehicle’s license plate. That ruling was based on an older version of the law that didn’t directly reference that the word “Florida” be clearly displayed on plates, the court said.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a drug or other crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced defense lawyer. Clearwater criminal defense attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of crimes. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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When Can Cops Stop You on the Street in Florida?

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