Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals says stops based on dirty license plates constitutional

Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals says stops based on dirty license plates constitutional


license plate
Eric Martin was stopped by a police officer for violation of a the law requiring that a car license plate be maintained free from foreign materials and in a clearly legible condition. Martin’s plate was covered in oil or dirt and was illegible. The officer soon discovered that Martin was driving on a revoked license and arrested him.
Martin struck a plea deal with prosecutors and pled guilty to driving on a revoked license, fifth offense. He was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days but the trial court suspended all of the sentence but for the 29 days and placed Martin on probation. Martin has now appealed the section of Tennessee Code dealing with the condition of license plates. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that no question of law was raised by the appeal and it was dismissed.
Martin claims that T.C.A. Section 55-4-110(b) is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad in that fails to establish sufficient guidelines for determining that a tag is free from foreign materials and clearly legible. Martin claims the law as written permits police officers with far too much discretion. The statute specifically states:

Every registration plate shall at all times be securely fastened in a horizontal position to the vehicle for which it is issued so to prevent the plate from swinging and at a height of not less than twelve inches (12) from the ground, measuring from the bottom of such plate, in a place and position to be clearly visible and shall be maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible. No tinted materials may be placed over a license plate even if the information upon the license plate is not concealed.

The Court held that the officer in this case executed a traffic stop due to an equipment violation, something that the Tennessee Supreme Court has found to be a valid reason to stop a vehicle. As a result, the traffic stop was constitutional. After a brief investigation the officer determined that Martin was driving on a revoked license. The question that Martin now wants reviewed does not concern the revoked license, but the license plate. The Court found that the license plate issue was not dispositive to the case at trial. 

Even if the issue were dispositive the Court stated that both Tennessee state courts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit have found that traffic stops made pursuant to T.C.A. Section 55-4-110(b) are valid and constitutional.  The bottom line is that police can pull over a vehicle if the license is illegible--that is a valid reason to base a police stop.

To read the full opinion, click here.


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