Question: If an officer stops a car for failing to properly display a license plate, does his justification for the stop end once he gets close enough to the car to decipher the numbers on a temporary license tag hanging in the window?
Quick Answer: No, officers may detain the occupants for a period of time sufficient to run a computer check on the driver’s license, registration, and vehicle plates and to issue the driver a warning or citation.
Facts: There was no license plate on the front or rear of Eric Walker’s vehicle. The officer saw something in Walker’s rear window, but he couldn’t tell what it was. Once the vehicle was stopped, the officer walked past the rear bumper and determined that the object he had seen in defendant’s rear window was a temporary license tag. He was unable to see it from his cruiser because it was lying down at an angle and almost flat. The officer called the numbers on the tag into dispatch, but before receiving a response, he approached the car to identify the driver and to advise him of the reason for the stop. The officer asked the occupants to produce their identification, and they complied. At that time, the officer smelled marijuana inside the car, and he removed the occupants from the car and searched the interior.
Why this case is important: This case is helpful when thinking about the length and purpose of a stop. Here, although the officer quickly determined the vehicle was properly registered, it was appropriate for the officer to prolong the stop in order to issue a citation because the license placard should be displayed in the rear window in plain view from the rear of the vehicle. The officer here witnessed a minor traffic violation and was justified in making a limited stop for the purpose of issuing a citation or warning for failure to display a license plate. However, during the brief detention, the officer smelled marijuana coming from the car and was able to prolong the stop further to investigate the newly discovered evidence of a drug crime.
Keep in mind: If a temporary tag is affixed in such a manner so that it cannot be read or officers cannot see the temporary tag until they reach the side of the car, it has not been displayed in plain view. This is a violation of the law, and the officer is permitted to ask to see the driver’s license and detain him for a period of time sufficient to run a computer check.
Visit the Eleventh District Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.