License Plate Frames and the Law
License plate frames are not typically standard equipment on a vehicle, but they are a pretty standard accessory. Millions of cars and trucks on the road have some kind of license plate frame or frames, if they are registered in one of the states requiring front and back plates. But did you know some license plate frames can technically be illegal equipment?
On April 4, 2014, a California motorist by the name of Rudolph Hernandez Flores who was driving a 1999 Dodge Durango through the state of Illinois was pulled over by a state trooper and cited for driving a vehicle with a license plate frame. The top of the license plate read “Baja California”, and the edge of the frame partially covered the upper parts of the letters B, C, l and f.
Trooper Nate McVicker became suspicious when he noticed the vehicle was driving under the speed limit and the driver appeared to be very tense. So, with nothing else to go on, he pulled the driver over for a license plate frame infringement. According to Illinois law, any type of frames or coverings which “obstruct the visibility or electronic image recording of the plate” are illegal, and the driver of a vehicle with such an obstruction is subject to receiving a citation which can carry a fine of $750 to $1,000, and having the offending frame or covering, or even the entire plate in some instances, confiscated by the citing officer.
As it turns out, Trooper McVicker admitted that once he got closer to Mr. Flores’ vehicle, he could read the plate. However, he contended, he thought it was possible that it was possible the frame could be covering other important information imprinted above “Baja California”.
After being convicted of the crime of driving a vehicle with an offending license plate frame, Mr. Flores and his attorneys took their appeal to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where the case was heard by a panel of three judges. Mr. Flores’ attorneys argued that the overly meticulous interpretation of the law was unreasonable, as doing such would criminalize anything covering any part of any letter on a license plate, which would be absurd.
After hearing the case and reviewing the photograph provided of the offending license plate frame, the judges unanimously overturned Mr. Flores’ conviction. Furthermore, they found it was unreasonable for Trooper McVicker to have believed the state law had been violated at all. The panel even reasoned that if their ruling was any different, it would basically mean every license plate frame would need to be removed from every vehicle in order for drivers to avoid the risk of a citation, which they found to be unreasonable and unrealistic.
An Unlikely Twist
Mr. Flores should, however, thank his lucky stars that Trooper McVicker did not have a reasonable excuse to search the vehicle, as Mr. Flores did admit that he was transporting a stash of heroin worth $125,000 from Mexico to Ohio. Because the evidence which was used against him in the license plate frame case has been thrown out, he will most likely escape prosecution and conviction for drug trafficking. Now that’s a twist you didn’t see coming, isn’t it?