Nice frame - pull over. Today the Iowa Supreme Court gave law enforcement the license to pull Iowans over based just upon the frame around their license plates. According to the Court, a license plate frame that covers up the county name violates Iowa law and provides law enforcement with a legal basis to conduct a traffic stop."
It has been the law across the nation for some time that when a police officer observes a traffic offense, however minor, the officer has probable cause to stop the driver of the vehicle. The motivation of the officer stopping the vehicle is of no concern to the court and the officer is not bound by the real reason for the stop. In other words, if the officer wants to stop a vehicle to investigate narcotic activity without sufficient suspicion of narcotics activity, if he observes any sort of traffic offense, he may lawfully stop the vehicle even though he may have an ulterior motive.
This law is the reason police officers stop cars for dirty license plates, the middle brake light being out, or license plate light being out at 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The police wouldn’t ordinarily stop someone for such a minor violation during normal driving hours, but at 2:00 a.m., they are looking for drunk drivers. Consequently, they stop vehicles for whatever reason they can come up with just to see if the driver has been drinking. The way our law is currently, so long as the reason or the stop is valid, the officers true motivation for the stop is irrelevant.
We see license plate frames all over the place that partially obscure portions of the numbers and letters on the plates. Often times the county name is at least partially obscured. These frames may be placed on the vehicle by the car dealership that sold you the car or are purchased and placed on the vehicle by the owner to show support for their favorite team or cause. In State v. Harrison, the Iowa Supreme Court was squarely presented with the question of whether or not a plate frame that obscures the county violates Iowa law.
Iowa Code section 321.37(3) makes it unlawful “for the owner of a vehicle to place any frame around or over the registration plate which does not permit full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate.” The defendant in Harrison, contended that this provision only applied to the large letters and numbers that actually serve a purpose on the plate. The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed concluding “all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate” meant exactly what it said. This means the “Hawkeyes,” “Cyclones,” “Panthers,” or “Bulldogs,” on the Iowa Collegiate plate that serve absolutely no legal purpose, better be clear and visible as well.
So, while license plate frames may be neat and decorative, if they do not properly fit around the plate and obscure any letter or numeral printed on the plate, they give the police a license to pull you over. Unless you welcome extra one-on-one time with your city, county or state law enforcement agencies you may want to tell the car dealer the next time you buy a car, “thanks but no thanks – keep the frame.” If you have a frame you just might want to consider scrapping it.