- Associated Press - Friday, May 2, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Motorists who have license plate frames that advertise their favorite teams, colleges and causes can be stopped by police if the frames obscure the county name on the plates, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 5-2 that a 1984 law requiring drivers to “permit full view of all numerals and letters” on the plate includes the county, which is in small letters below the larger six-character alphanumeric identifier. Having a frame that covers the county, as countless vehicles do, is a valid reason alone for police to justify a traffic stop, Justice Thomas Waterman wrote.

Dissenting Justice Brent Appel said Iowa citizens “better go out to the garage and check their license plate frames” if they want to avoid being stopped.

“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!” he wrote. “If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate, 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 Iowa Automobile Dealers Association has long advised that frames shouldn’t cover the county or word “Iowa” at top, and it already makes and sells only those that comply with Friday’s ruling, said president Bruce Anderson. Selling noncompliant frames “puts the driver at risk and makes for unhappy customers,” he said, warning that frames purchased from many retailers and out-of-state dealers won’t be in compliance.

The decision drew criticism from libertarians, who called it an unnecessary intrusion into privacy.

“This just gives police another excuse to pull somebody over,” said David Fischer, who recently stepped down as co-chairman of Iowa’s Republican Party.

The decision is a victory for Davenport officers who used such a violation to justify the 2009 stop of a man who was under surveillance for suspected drug dealing based on information from a confidential informant. Officers found the man, 38-year-old Craig Harrison, in possession of eighteen prepackaged crack cocaine rocks. He was charged with possession with intent to deliver and other offenses - but not the plate violation, which carries a $20 fine.

Harrison challenged the stop. He argued that the law only required the display of the large letters and numbers on the plate, not the smaller ones at bottom designating which of 99 counties issued it. He noted that officers don’t use the county to check plates in the registration database, and that some 50,000 vehicles with specialty plates featuring Iowa colleges and other themes don’t include the county.

Judge C.H. Pelton ruled before trial that the “alleged license plate violation” was pretextual and an invalid reason for the stop. But Pelton found it was otherwise justified based on the informant’s tip and officers’ observation of Harrison.

But trial Judge Marlita Greve disagreed, ruling the stop was legal because “policemen could not see the entire writing on the license plate.” She excluded testimony about the informant, whose reliability was unclear. Harrison was convicted and is serving a 10-year sentence.

Prosecutors argued that legislators intended for the county name to be covered by the law requiring “full view of all numerals and letters.” They argued that knowing the county helps police and citizens identify vehicles involved in suspicious and illegal activity.

Waterman’s majority opinion agreed. He noted that other Iowa laws require plates to include the county of issuance and be “clearly legible.” Taken together, the laws reinforce the requirement that all plate information be visible, he wrote.

Anderson said drivers often debate whether the county should be on the plate since it isn’t in many states, and he expects lawmakers to revisit the issue.

Iowa DOT official Mark Lowe said county names have become “less relevant” since 1995, when the state decided that plates should be replaced once per decade instead of annually. Many drivers move during that time, so their plates don’t reflect where a vehicle is from, he said.

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