Police in Massachusetts may no longer stop a car merely because a laser jammer or aftermarket backup camera partially obscures the motto on a license plate. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals decided on March 2 that the state police had no business pulling over Patrick H. Miller simply because the phrase “Spirit of America” at the bottom of his plate was partially covered as he drove on Route 93 South in Stoneham on April 30, 2009.
At around 9pm, Trooper Dana Shea decided Miller’s GMC van was worth investigating. Miller had not been driving erratically and committed no traffic violation, according to Shea. Instead, the trooper believed the aftermarket backup camera device he had installed violated a state Bureau of Motor Vehicles regulation.
“Nothing contained in 540 CMR 2.00 shall be construed to prohibit the use of any metal or other frame covering, the border of any such reflectorized number plate so long as such frame does not cover or obscure in any manner the register number or any other words, symbols or numbers lawfully imprinted on or affixed to such number plate,” the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, Chapter 540 Section 2.23(3) states.
The appellate judges found that this expansive regulation does more than just implement the law, which states that the license number and registration stickers be clearly visible.
“The regulation, however, goes further and prohibits a frame on the license plate from covering any words or symbols, even those other than the registration number,” Associate Justice Elspeth B. Cypher wrote for the court. “Regardless of the merits of particular regulations, an administrative agency has no authority to promulgate rules or regulations that conflict with the statutes or exceed the authority conferred by the statutes by which the agency was created. It would appear, therefore, that the regulation is indeed invalid because it exceeds the scope of the enabling statute.”
The justices stopped short of throwing out the regulation because the precise wording of the regulation was limited to license plate frames, not backup cameras or other devices that might block the bottom of a plate. They found no need to strike down the rule because the case could be resolved without doing so.
“The trooper believed that these facts gave him a reasonable basis to believe that the defendant was violating a regulation when, as matter of law, he was not,” Cypher wrote. “The trooper did not have any basis to stop the defendant; therefore the stop was improper and the evidence obtained as a result of that stop must be suppressed.”
As a result, the drunk driving charges against Miller will likely be dropped.