In a case that started with a dangling tag light, the Florida Supreme Court made clear Thursday that police officers have broad authority to pull over motorists whose license plates are not fully visible.
Justices, in a 5-2 decision, rejected an appeal from Jermaine D. English, who was stopped by Orlando police because a tag light and wires were hanging down over the license plate on a vehicle he was driving. Evidence found during the stop led to English being charged with possession of cocaine, marijuana and paraphernalia.
In seeking to suppress the evidence, an attorney for English contended that police did not have cause to stop the vehicle. But the Supreme Court upheld a 2014 decision by the 5th District Court of Appeal, which found that state law requires numbers and letters on license plates to be "plainly visible at all times."
A major part of the dispute centered on whether the law applies only to license plates that have been defaced or covered in substances, such as grease, that would prevent them from being easily read – or whether it also applies to situations such as bulbs and wires hanging down.
"We conclude that the plain language of (the section of state law) is clear and unambiguous, and requires that a license plate be plainly visible and legible at all times without regard to whether the obscuring matter is on or external to the plate,'' said Thursday's ruling, written by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and joined by justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston.
But Justice James E.C. Perry, in a dissent joined by Justice Barbara Pariente, wrote that the law was intended to prevent motorists from "physically altering or obscuring the license plate."
"Under the majority's view, the licensing statute could lead to potentially outrageous results," Perry wrote. "For example, families and avid bikers who utilize rear bike racks will now be guilty of unlawful activity if any part of the bicycle or bicycle rack – or the nylon straps which are used to secure the bike to the rack – covers the license plate. The possibilities under which law enforcement may now detain drivers under this statute are limited only by the imagination, potentially placing in the hands of law enforcement unfettered discretion to enforce the statute."
In going to the Supreme Court, English's attorney argued that the 2014 ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal conflicted with an earlier decision by another appeals court. That decision, by the 2nd District Court of Appeal, found that police could not stop a vehicle because a trailer hitch blocked the view of a license plate, according to a brief filed last year by English's attorney.
The Supreme Court majority, however, sided with the 5th District Court of Appeal and rejected the earlier ruling.
"The plain language of (of the section of law) requires that a license plate be 'clear and distinct' and 'free from defacement, mutilation, grease, and other obscuring matter;' it does not suggest that matter external to the license plate may constitute a permissible obstruction under the statute,'' Labarga wrote.