Mere Use of License Plate Cover Not Grounds for Traffic Stop

February 10, 2014
By Parker Scheer LLP on February 10, 2014 11:10 AM |

Today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Bernard, affirming the decision of a Lawrence District Court judge to suppress evidence obtained from the defendant's vehicle when a Massachusetts State Trooper pulled the defendant's vehicle over after observing a plastic cover on the vehicle's rear license plate. The decision resulted in the suppression of statements and evidence supporting firearm charges against the defendant.

In June 2009, the trooper observed the defendant operating a vehicle on Route 495 southbound. The trooper, who was traveling in the first lane, allegedly was unable to see the license plate of the defendant's vehicle, which he observed from an angle as the defendant's vehicle traveled in the third lane. The license plate was covered with a clear, but tinted, plastic cover. For this reason only, the trooper pulled up behind the defendant's vehicle and activated his cruiser lights to pull the defendant over. The trooper observed no other traffic violations.

During the subsequent interaction between the trooper and the defendant, the defendant made certain statements, and the trooper discovered a holster and a gun on the defendant, leading to the defendant's arrest. The defendant was charged with unlawfully carrying a loaded firearm without a license, unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon, two counts of possession of a firearm without a firearms identification card, and possession of a firearm after having been convicted of two prior violent or serious drug offenses (felon in possession). The defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements and evidence obtained during the stop on the grounds that the stop was impermissible.

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court judge agreed. She found that the sole reason for the stop was the trooper's belief that the defendant's license plate cover violated M.G.L. c. 90, § 6. That statute requires that "number plates shall be kept clean with the numbers legible and shall not be obscured in any manner by the installation of any device obscuring said numbers." According to the trooper's testimony and the judge's findings, the trooper routinely stops vehicles if there is a cover of any kind on a license plate. After reviewing an authenticated photograph of the license plate with the cover intact, the judge found "that the photograph submitted depicts a clear license plate with all numbers and letters visible. As such, the license plate was not obstructed when the defendant was stopped pursuant to [M.G.L. c. 90, § 6]." Accordingly, the judge held that the stop was impermissible, and allowed the defendant's motion to suppress.

On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the judge's finding that the photograph shows a "clear" license plate was clearly erroneous because the photograph showed that the cover was tinted. The Appeals Court disagreed, interpreting the judge's finding to mean that the cover did not impede the visibility of the license plate, notwithstanding the tint. And, on its independent review of the photograph, the Appeals Court agreed that the tint neither obscured nor reduce the legibility of the license plate.

The Appeals Court emphasized that, by itself, a license plate cover - tinted or not - does not violate M.G.L. c. 90, § 6. A cover would only be a violation if it obscured the license plate numbers. Likewise, the court found that the related regulation, 540 Code Mass. Regs. § 2.23(1), does not summarily prohibit the use of license plate covers. Instead, the regulation bars only those covers that reduce the legibility or substantially diminish the reflective quality of the license plate.

Because the trooper's only reason for stopping the defendant's vehicle was his mistaken belief that the use of the license plate cover was a violation of the statute, and because the evidence leading to the defendant's arrest was obtained only as a result of the unlawful traffic stop, the Appeals Court affirmed the lower court's decision to suppress the evidence against the defendant.

To discuss representation in a criminal matter involving a traffic stop based upon an alleged traffic violation, contact a criminal defense attorney at Parker Scheer today.