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Iowa Supreme Court Rules on Covered License Plates

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- Iowa drivers who like to “personalize” the covers holding their license plates may want to pay attention to a Friday Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

Justices decided police can make a traffic stop based solely on an obscured license plate on vehicles and don’t need any other reason.

Law enforcement officers say the rule’s been part of Iowa code for years. It says nothing can hide the letters, numbers or registration sticker that goes on a license plate. That applies even if the only thing covered up is the name of the county at the bottom of the plate.

You don’t have to go far to find license plates that technically violate that rule. A quick trip through downtown Cedar Rapids found perhaps one in ten vehicles with a frame that covers up some part of the license tag.

Many times, it’s a sports frame with a team name that obscures part of the plate.

At auto parts stores, some of the frames come with a warning on back to check first before installing to make sure the style doesn’t conflict with state law.

Several drivers downtown found themselves both skeptical and confused when told about the high court ruling.

Kenneth Brown said “I’ve never heard of anything like that. But it’s just the same thing as the traffic cameras.”

Another driver, Tonia Smith, added “it seems a little obscure. But hey, my license plate I believe has the county name covered. So maybe I need to take a look at it.”

The Iowa Supreme Court got involved because of a Davenport case entitled State of Iowa v Craig E. Harrison.

Police in Davenport suspected Harrison was carrying drugs in his car and used the obscured plate law to make a traffic stop. A search then turned up the drugs. Harrison’s lawyer sought to get the conviction thrown out because the only reason for the stop was a plate violation.

Justices ruled even if there was no other probably cause to stop Harrison’s vehicle, police could make a traffic stop for that violation alone.

Brian Gardner, Linn County Sheriff, said officers make more traffic stops for plate problems because they either can’t see the registration sticker or believe the entire plate is too dirty to be visible.

But Gardner added officers could write a ticket even if the only problem is a covered county name.

“Whether they would or not remains to be seen. But the reality is the code is clear and the Iowa Supreme Court has verified it. If you cover letters or numbers on a plate, you’re in violation of the law,” Gardner said.

Drivers pulled over for an obscured plate might get a warning. But a $20.00 ticket is a possibility and with court costs that adds up to a $92.00 violation.

l Comments: (319) 368-8611;

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