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Prolonged Obstructed License Plates Stop Leads to Dismissal of Drug Charges

Often when our clients are charged with OVI or a drug offense based upon alleged paraphernalia found in a vehicle, the initial reason for the stop has nothing to do with the subsequent charge.  For example, many clients are pulled over for speeding or another moving violation, which then leads to an OVI or drug charge once the officer approaches the car.

Ohio’s Obstructed License Plates Law

One interesting charge, however, is obstructed plates.  Ohio law requires that license plates be in “plain view” in both the front and rear of a vehicle on the road, and that they should not obstructed by anything.  

But under one recent Ohio court of appeals case, this charge has many potential holes if it is used by an officer to open the door to a prolonged traffic stop or more serious charge.  Here is what happened.

Obstructed License Plate Stop Snowballs Into Drug Charge

In State v. Jones, officers testified that they observed a black Ford Explorer with a rear license plate that they claim could not be read.  One officer testified that rear license plate was partially obstructed by a tinted license plate cover and a ball mounted to the draw bar of the trailer hitch.

The officers say they followed the SUV for several blocks in an attempt to read the license plate. When they couldn’t, they pulled the SUV over.  One officer approached the vehicle and determined that there was no threat.  The other officer walked to the rear of the vehicle where he was able to read the entire license plate.

When asked for his driver’s license, the defendant admitted he didn’t have a valid Ohio license and that his license was suspended.   That police department by policy towed the vehicle because the driver’s license was suspended and the owner (the driver’s mother) was not present.

While doing an inventory of the car to be towed, the officers found a bag containing what appeared to be crack cocaine in the passenger side pocket.  The officers arrested the defendant and charged him with drug trafficking, drug possession and possessing criminal tools.

Because Officer Detained Driver Beyond the Time Necessary to Read the License Plate, the Drug Charges Were Dismissed

The defendant filed a motion to suppress.  At the hearing, the defendant argued that his rear license plate was not obstructed and, therefore, the officers had no reason to stop him.  He also introduced a photo of the rear license plate in which the entire rear license plate could be seen.   Additionally, the defendant’s mother (the car’s owner) testified that she received a traffic-camera ticket, which proved that the license plate was not obstructed.

Further, he argued that there was no reasonable suspicion to support stopping and detaining the defendant when the only reason he was pulled over was for an obstructed plate.   And once he was pulled over, the officer could see the plate.  In order to stop and detain someone, the police must have “reasonable suspicion”.  This means that there must be some objective reason that the police believe criminal activity is afoot.

In a similar prior case involving an obscured plate, the officer pulled the defendant over and subsequently arrested him for an OVI.  The court found that although the officer testified that he could not read the license plate when he pulled the defendant over, he could read the plate once he got out of his car and approached the vehicle.   Once the officer could read the license plate, he no longer had any reason to detain the defendant for an OVI investigation.

The Ohio Supreme Court case on point is State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, 463 N.E.2d 1237 (1984), which said:

“[w]here a police officer stops a motor vehicle which displays neither front nor rear license plates, but upon approaching the stopped vehicle observes a temporary tag which is visible through the rear windshield, the driver of the vehicle may not be detained further to determine the validity of his driver’s license absent some specific and articulable facts that the detention was reasonable.”

Similarly here, once the officers could read the plate, they should have let the defendant on his way.  There was no other separate and articulable reason to continue the stop.

Thus, the appeals court affirmed and all drug evidence found in the car was thrown out.

If you were charged with obstructed license plates, which snowballed into another charge, talk to an attorney.  This court precedent could mean that the stop was improper, which could potential lead to your case being thrown out of court.  Talking to an attorney about the details of your case will give you the best idea as to whether this case law applies in your situation.