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Obstructed license plates

By Jeff Terrill

Fort Wayne Reader


When my brother and I were kids, we joined forces on long car trips to see if we could spot a license plate from each state. My brother was older and, admittedly, probably knew all of the fifty states, so he was a big contributor to the game. He also kept reliable records. Hawaii was the only state we couldnít find. For months we looked for any signs of the Aloha state whenever we were in the car. No luck. I think we had given up hope (and the game) when our neighbors surprised us with a gift of an actual Hawaii license plate that they brought back from their Hawaiian vacation. Ever since, Iíve kind of had a thing for license plates. I tend to look at them when Iím driving in traffic.

Iím not alone. Police officers are checking them out too.

Commit a traffic or an equipment violation and you might get pulled over. What sometimes starts as a simple traffic stop often leads to a criminal investigation of an impaired driver or of a driver suspected to be in possession of something illegal. Thatís when the lawyer usually gets the call. Speeding, disregarding a traffic signal, or failure to wear a seatbelt are just a few of the many justifications for a ďlegalĒ traffic stop. Most speeders are aware that they are taking a risk.

Police officers also pull drivers over for violation of the license plate display requirements. I think most drivers know they are required to equip their vehicle with a valid license plate. But where people can get a troubling surprise is when they place a frame or protective cover over their plate. Any frame or cover that obstructs the plateís visibility can be considered unlawful. When you buy a car, the dealer will usually put the dealerís frame on your plate without even asking. I recently saw a license plate border that was supposed to look like a sharksí mouth. The jagged teeth blocked the date and year stickers in both corners, as well as the name of the county.

Indiana Code 9-18-2-26 requires that a license plate be securely fastened to the vehicle to (1) prevent it from swinging; (2) at a height of at least 12 inches from the ground; (3) in a place and position that is clearly visible; (4) maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible; and (5) not obstructed by tires, bumpers, accessories, or other opaque objects.

So what does all of that mean? The bottom line is that if your vehicleís license plate is not clearly legible then an officer can pull you over. Iíve seen bike racks and small trailers that block the view of a license plate. Iíve noticed tow hitches installed in such a way that interferes with a clear view of the license plate. But I think the biggest offenders are the license plate frames and borders. Most have a universal design and are not state specific. You know, the frames with the name and logo of professional sports teams or colleges. That portion of the frame with the college mascot or the pro teamís name that covers any relevant part of the plateís information is enough to get you stopped.

Before you drive your car next time, stand about 15 feet or so behind it. Look at the plate. Is it on tight? Are your stickers up to date? Can you clearly see the stickers in the top right and top left corners? Can you read the name of the county and the name of the state? Can you read all of the letters and numbers? If yes, then you should be good. If you have a clear cover, do you see a glare or do you see any moisture trapped inside? Is there a bike rack or hitch in the way of your view? Does any part of your frame cover obstruct any part of a number or letter? If yes, you should remove it.

Ever since the University of Kentucky beat IU in the NCAA menís basketball tournament, it seems like Iíve seen a few more cars sporting big blue UK license plate frames. I wonder if any officers have had trouble making out the information on those plates.


Jeff Terrill is a partner/shareholder with the law firm of Arnold Terrill Anzini, P.C. Mr. Terrill represents clients accused of crimes throughout northeast Indiana. You can contact Mr. Terrill with any questions or comments at his office at 260.420.7777 or via email at jterrill@fortwaynedefense.com. Learn more about his firm at www.fortwaynedefense.com. _This article expressed opinions and observations of the author, is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Please consult a qualified attorney with any legal questions or issues you might have. Thank you.

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