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Ask a Trooper: License plate frame

By Staff | May 9, 2014

Q: There has been a lot of news coverage lately on a new license plate law. It has to do with a license plate frame that may be covering the county name at the bottom of the plate. Can you address this issue?

A: On Friday, May 2 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a traffic stop based on a license plate violation. This is not a new code section; in fact it has been a law for a number of years, but is receiving quite a bit of attention now that the ruling has been made.

Here is a short summary of the case in question. Officers received a tip on drug activity in a car and respond to the area to investigate. They are able to locate the vehicle in question and stop the vehicle for a license plate frame that is obscuring the county name at the bottom of the plate. Officers end up arresting the driver for narcotics violations. The defense argued in a suppression hearing that the officer misinterpreted code section 321.37(3) and hence, the drug charges be dropped. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the officer, and the defendant was convicted of the drug offense.

Iowa Code Section 321.37(3) states the following

“It is unlawful for the owner of a vehicle to place any frame around or over the registration plate which does not permit full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate.”

The main issue is that any license plate frames attached to the plate must allow full view of all letters and numerals, including the county name at the bottom. In their decision, the Supreme Court stated the following

‘The language “all numerals and letters” unambiguously requires drivers to display all information printed on the license plate, including the county name

Although the county name is unnecessary to conduct a license plate check, it can be useful to help law enforcement track down a vehicle driven by someone who has been observed breaking the law. Citizens unable to remember a complete registration plate number may be able to help identify a particular vehicle by providing the county name with a partial number.’

Officers are also able to use the county name to identify suspicious vehicles in patrolling burglary-prone areas. County names are useful in identifying vehicles that may be out of place.

Much attention on this topic has been given to the fact that law enforcement now has another ‘minor’ violation they can use to stop anyone for no good reason. I would much rather focus on the positive aspects of this ruling. This ruling solidifies law enforcements ability to promote public safety in a number of different areas. And more importantly, a drug offender was convicted of his crime, and taken off the street.