Your license plate frame is enough for the Pennsylvania police to arrest you, court rules Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Thousands of drivers in Pennsylvania may now be at greater risk of getting pulled over by police — all because of the frame around their license plate.

A state appeals court decision this week affirmed the right of police officers to arrest drivers if part of their license plate is obscured. This includes not just the unique combination of letters and numbers that make up a person’s license plate, but any lettering, including the visitpa.com URL – or, for that matter, the paint around it.

Critics argue the ruling, by a three-judge Superior Court panel, raises concerns about racial bias and other potential abuses of power by law enforcement, and could give police another pretext to stop a driver for a seemingly trivial reason, among others. significant and unintended consequences.

“At a time when we want to remove mock arrests, this ruling specifically opens the door for anyone arrested at the whim of the police to be investigated,” said Philadelphia attorney S. Philip Steinberg, who argued against the court’s ruling. court. in the case.

A spokesman for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who appealed the case to the state’s Superior Court, called the assessment “unfair.”

The ruling, Krasner spokesman Dustin Slaughter said, “simply upholds current case law” and does not allow officers to employ new or different tactics during traffic stops. But the decision itself indicates that the decision answers a new question before the court.

At the heart of the decision is how to interpret the language of a section of Pennsylvania’s vehicle code that prohibits the obscuring of license plates.

The code states that it is illegal to display a license plate so dirty that its numbers and letters are unreadable from a reasonable distance. or is obscured in such a way that a red light camera or toll collection system cannot read it; or “is otherwise unreadable from a reasonable distance or is obscured in any way.”

In their ruling, the three judges seized on the phrase “or is obscured in any way,” which they said was a catch-all phrase intended to prohibit any obstruction of any part of the plate. If the legislature only wanted to prohibit obstructions to license plate number and issuing authority, it would have done so specifically, the panel said.

“While we appreciate Respondent’s position that § 1332 [of the vehicle code] should be limited to those elements of a license plate which are actually relevant to the identification of vehicle registration, this interpretation does not correspond to a plain reading of the law,” wrote Judge Mary Jane Bowes. .

The decision stems from a case involving an April 2021 traffic stop in Philadelphia in which a police officer stopped a car because of a partially obstructed plate. What was obstructed: the strip at the bottom of the plaque that lists the official state tourist office website, visitpa.comwho standard license plates in Pennsylvania include.

During the arrest, according to court documents, the officer noticed that the front passenger, Derrick Ruffin, was making “stealth movements”, as if to hide something, and carried out a “protective sweep” of the passenger seat. There he found a loaded revolver (which Ruffin was not allowed to carry), ammunition, and marijuana. The officer also discovered that the car was not registered and the driver did not have a licence.

Ruffin was charged with several crimes, including carrying an unlicensed firearm.

But at a preliminary hearing last summer, a lower court suppressed the evidence the officer had recovered. In its opinion, the court found that the Philadelphia police officer did not have probable cause to make the stop because the state’s vehicle code only prohibits the obstruction of a number plate. license plate and license plate issuing authority. The state’s tourism website, he found, did not count for such a violation.

The Superior Court’s three-judge panel disagreed.

Steinberg, the Philadelphia attorney who represented Ruffin, said a quick check of any Pennsylvania parking lot will show that most vehicles have frames around the plate — some of them placed there by dealerships when a car is purchased. His own car, he said, has a frame that obscures the outer edges of his license plate.

The court ruling, he said, says many Pennsylvanians are technically breaking the law and could be arrested at any time.

“How is this enforced – and against whom is it enforced?” said Steinberg, partner at Schatz, Steinberg & Klayman. “I don’t think the Superior Court had bad intentions in this decision but… it really opens Pandora’s box.

Young drivers, drivers of color and drivers with older cars could find themselves in the crosshairs of more targeted stops, he said.

Andy Hoover, communications director for the ACLU Pennsylvania, said the decision was “another flimsy excuse for police to pull people over, and we’ve seen time and time again how routine traffic stops can escalate into tragic results, especially for blacks and browns”.

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