Fasten Your License Plate? Pre-textual Traffic Stops
The July 4th holiday is upon us and many will travel to friends and family to celebrate the holiday with barbeques, fireworks, and other events. Philadelphia’s Welcome America event features fireworks and various concerts on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In addition, many towns throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey will feature their very own festivities. Moorestown, New Jersey, for instance, has its annual July 4th parade. Wherever you are traveling this holiday, please keep in mind that there will be an increased police presence because of the concerns about drunk driving (DUI, DWI) and other traffic related incidents (Reckless and Carless Driving).
As I have written in previous blogs, police don’t need probable cause to stop a vehicle for suspected DUI, but only reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired or intoxicated. Reasonable suspicion doesn’t require as many articulable facts as probable cause. Probable cause is the evidentiary standard the law uses to evaluate search warrants, warrantless searches, and arrests. Probable cause, however, isn’t enough to convict a person at trial where the standard is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Vehicle Issues & Traffic Stops—Pretextual Vehicle Stop
It’s important to keep in mind that police sometimes stop vehicles for unrelated traffic offenses and/or vehicle deficiencies in order to begin an investigation and possibly a warrantless search. These are known as pretexual stops (I encourage you to read my article on these stops for more information). If you’re traveling this weekend, take a minute to look over your vehicle to ensure that there is no issue which would cause a police officer to stop you. Police officers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey can use a pretext to stop a car and begin an investigation at that point for a completely unrelated issue.
For example, a car with a hanging license plate or a plate that is obscured or covered in any way offers police a perfect opportunity to stop a vehicle and begin an investigation where they wouldn’t’ otherwise have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
License Plate Issue—Is it Displayed Properly?
In Pennsylvania, under Chapter 47 of the Pennsylvania code, every license plate needs to be securely fastened so that it complies with all of the following requirements:
- It is clearly visible
- It is in a horizontal position (not including motorcycles)
- Have a height of not less than 12” from the ground, measuring from the bottom of the registered plate
- To prevent it from swinging (See Section 47.3, Pennsylvania Code).
REGISTRATION AND INSPECTION STICKERS
As of December 31, 2016, Pennsylvania no longer requires that vehicles display a registration sticker on the license plate but still requires a vehicle emission and inspection sticker. The inspection sticker needs to be affixed to the inside, driver’s side, bottom corner of the windshield and clearly visible from the outside of the vehicle. See Section 47.4 – Validating Stickers in Pennsylvania)
What to do if police stop you this holiday weekend?
If you are stopped for what you believe to be a pretextual issue, it is important that you explain to your criminal defense lawyer what you were doing when the police stopped the vehicle and any deficiencies that the police may or may not have explained to you. Keep in mind however, police need to document the basis for the stop on the ticket itself, the incident report, and the arrest memorandum if the stop eventually leads to an arrest for the violation itself or some other reason.
Vehicle Searches & Pretextual Stops—They don’t need a warrant to search
If during a pretextual stop a police officer detects or notices an odor of alcohol it may lead to a field sobriety test and/or a search of the vehicle. In Pennsylvania, like New Jersey, police do not need a search warrant to search a vehicle if they believe the vehicle itself contains contraband (drugs, alcohol, and illegal guns). Further, a search warrant is not necessary if the driver gives consent for the search. If you are stopped this holiday for any reason, be respectful of police but do not consent to the search of your vehicle. If you are asked to give a chemical test (blood or breathalyzer) you should NOT refuse it as you have no constitutional right to do so. If you do refuse the test PennDot can and will suspend your driver’s license regardless of the outcome of your criminal case.
For more information on drunk driving in Pennsylvania, I encourage you to read my book, Five Ways To Fight and Win Your Pennsylvania DUI Case. Our law firm also handles matters in New Jersey and if you are charged with a DWI in the Garden State, finding the right representation is critical.