Is the frame around your license plate illegal? Probably so

If you unintentionally cover even a small portion of your car’s license plate you can be stopped by police, ticketed and perhaps arrested for the offense, the state’s highest criminal court ruled Wednesday. Further, if someone else (a car dealership) covered a portion of the plate, you subject yourself to the same consequences.

The 8-1 decision in Craig Hill Johnson v. State of Texas left three Court of Criminal Appeals judges shaking their heads — stating that the statute was “uncommonly bad,” but they still held that the letter of the law prohibits drivers from encasing their license plate in a frame that obscures the state name, state nickname or even portions of the artwork.

Unfortunately, the law as written unintentionally endangers civil liberties, Judge Cathy Cochran wrote in an opinion that, while siding with the majority, raises concerns about the ruling’s impact.

“It is a ‘gotcha’ law because it allows the police to arbitrarily stop, ticket, arrest and search any person who is driving a car whose
license plate frame covers up any portion of that plate’s design,” Cochran wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Tom Price and Cheryl Johnson. “Look around you — the vast majority of drivers on Texas roads and highways can be stopped and arrested at any given moment.”

Still, Cochran stated that under the relevant Transportation Code, “it is a crime . .. if that frame obscures even the tiniest bit of the doo-dad design details of the standard-issue Texas license plate.”

While it is merely a Class C misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200, it could result in arrest, a trip to jail and a search by police.

The issue before the Court of Criminal Appeals focused on the Texas Transportation Code § 502.409(a)(7), which states: “A person commits an offense if the person attaches to or displays on a motor vehicle a number plate or registration insignia that . . . has a coating, covering or protective material that . . . alters or obscures the letters or numbers on the plate, the color of the plate, or another original design feature of the plate.”

The majority of Judges felt that even though the state name and nickname do not constitute “letters on the plate” as stated in the law, the words and designs are part of the original design features of the plate, “the obscuring of which is prohibited.

The lone dissent, filed by Judge Lawrence Meyers, called the law unconstitutionally vague.

“Nowhere in the statute does it say who is violating the statute if the car has such a license plate cover. Is it the person who put the cover around the license plate? Is it the car’s owner? Is it the driver of the car?” Meyers wrote.

In her concurring opinion, Cochran offered drivers three pieces of advice:

•Remove all license plate frames, attaching the plate with “bare nuts and bolts.”

•Spend a little extra money, if available, to get a personalized license plate without the doo-dad design details.

•Ask the Legislature to enact a law that requires all design work and lettering on Texas license plates to be indented to provide a one-inch white margin at the edges.

In the meantime, Cochran warned, beware.

“Be prepared to be pulled over and ticketed, and perhaps even arrested (and have your car towed) if your license plate frame obscures even one of the ‘starry-night stars’ on your license plate.

“Mothers driving their children to school should beware; not even the United States Supreme Court will protect you from arrest for violating the Texas Transportation Code.”

I have represented many clients that have been stopped for this very reason. When all else fails, and the person does not commit a traffic offense, if they want to stop them, they fall back on this justification. I have noticed that nearly every new car comes with a frame around the license plate advertising for the dealership. There are also vanity plate frames representing everything from “I love my wife” to “Purple Heart Recipient”.

You are now warned that you need to take those frames off as soon as possible, to avoid this unfortunate law.

On another note, this law was created to make it easier to catch folks that were blowing through the Houston toll booths without the required toll tags, but I don’t think the legislature ever intended for this to be the consequence of this law. Further evidence of this belief is found in the attempts of several bills before the legislature to change the law. (I.e. SB 369, HB 348, HB 473, and SB 631)

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