The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled police can stop you if your license plate holder covers up too much. The case involved Craig Harrison of Davenport who in 2009 was being watched by undercover officers who had a tip he was dealing drugs. Officers eventually pulled him over because the license plate cover on his Jeep hid the name of the county on the plate.
Officers found 18 crack cocaine rocks in the vehicle and Harrison was charged with two drug offenses, driving with a suspended license and a license plate violation. One district court judge ruled the covered license plate was not a violation, but a second judge ruled it was, and Harrison was found guilty on all counts.
The Iowa Supreme Court reviewed the license plate issue on appeal. The court ruled the language of the law requires all license plate lettering to be visible. The ruling says while the county name is unnecessary to conduct a license plate check, it can be useful to help law enforcement track down a vehicle driven by someone who has been observed breaking the law. Citizens unable to remember a complete registration plate number may be able to help identify a particular vehicle by providing the county name with a partial number.
Justice Brent Appel wrote a dissent, saying his interpretation of the law only requires that the lettering and numbering on the license plate be visible. And he questions whether the officers had enough information to make the stop without using the license plate cover as an excuse. Appel says it is important for law officers to do their jobs, but the Iowa Constitution requires the court to ensure individuals are protected from unwarranted seizures on the open road.
He concludes his dissent with this: “In the meantime, 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. 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. The State will likely take the position that the decision to stop a vehicle will rest in the unreviewable discretion of the police regardless of pretext. Sounds a bit like a general warrant, doesn’t it? ”
Justice Daryl Hecht joined Appel’s dissent.
See the full ruling here: License plate ruling PDF