Fix license plate law to not be a general warrant

“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!”

That’s part of the dissenting opinion from Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, who was one of two Iowa justices who didn’t sign on to a written opinion earlier this month that ruled Davenport police officers were acting lawfully in 2009 when they pulled over a car they suspected of containing drugs simply because its license plate holder obscured the county name on the plate.

As much as we support license plate holders for their utility in trumpeting sports teams and school pride, we agree with Appel’s dissent and worry about how the majority opinion may encourage future violations of Iowans’ civil liberties.

First, some background: According the ruling, the officers said they suspected that the driver, Craig Harrison, was dealing drugs before the stop because of a description of the vehicle from a confidential informant. Harrison appealed his eventual conviction for the crime on the basis that the officers did not have lawful cause to stop his vehicle.

An appeals court upheld the conviction on the grounds that the confidential informant gave the officers enough reason to stop the vehicle. The appeals court judge, however, ruled that the license plate should not have provided cause for a stop because the main numbers and digits on the plate were visible. This decision was appealed to the state supreme court.

Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Thomas Waterman vacated part of the appeals court’s ruling, saying that the partially obscured plate was cause enough for the vehicle to be pulled over. Waterman wrote that a “clear and unambiguous” reading of Iowa Code requires motorists to have “full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate.”

In his dissent, Appel wrote that this interpretation could be used as cause for police pulling over any of thousands of vehicles driven by Iowans each year. He, instead, held that the confidential informant’s description of the vehicle was vital to the arrest.

“If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate,” Appel wrote, “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?”

Yes, it does.

There have been some suggestions of a legislative fix for the original 1984 law – including calls to not require county names on license plates at all. But such a change would do little to help fix the problem for the thousands of drivers now on the road with license plates obscured by the holders.

Rather than talk about removing county names from license plates, it would be just to clarify the intent of the law to refer to the letters and numerals contained within the actual license plate number. That would provide protection for all motorists, present and future. In the meantime, police need to make sure not to abuse this ruling. Some fans have suffered enough without being pulled over for it.

– Iowa City Press-Citizen. May 23, 2014.