The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Ruffin, holding that it is illegal to obstruct any portion of a car’s license plate and therefore police may conduct a motor vehicle stop even if they can see the tag number.
Commonwealth v. Ruffin
A Philadelphia police officer conducted a traffic stop due to a motor vehicle’s partially obstructed registration plate. The officer could see the tag number, but the border that had been put on by the auto dealership covered the portion of the plate which provides the state’s tourism website. After pulling the car over solely for that reason, the officer noticed that the vehicle had five occupants in it. he saw the defendant moving in a manner as if he was concealing something in a seat, so the officer decided to conduct a protective sweep or “frisk” of the car. He found a loaded revolver underneath a sweatshirt on the defendant’s seat. He also found ammo in the defendant’s pocket, so he arrested the defendant for various firearms charges after learning the defendant did not have a license to carry.
The Motion to Suppress
The defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm on public property, and possession of marijuana. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence recovered from the vehicle, arguing that the stop, search, and seizure violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment.
At the suppression hearing, the defendant argued that the officer should not have initiated the stop because he could read the numbers and letters on the license plate. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, ruling that the officer did not possess reasonable suspicion or probable cause to pull the vehicle over for an obscured website on the frame given that the officer could read all of the information that was actually relevant to police. The Commonwealth then filed an appeal of the court’s decision.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s Decision
On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the lower court erred in suppressing the gun because the gun was recovered during a lawful traffic stop for a vehicle code violation. The statute, section § 1332, makes it illegal to have the plate “obscured in any manner.” The Superior Court therefore had to determine what that section means. The Superior Court reversed, finding that the trial court had failed to use the plain meaning of “any manner.” Because the tourism website was part of the plate, and the tourism website was blocked by the dealer’s modification, the plate was obscured in “any manner.” Therefore, the police had probable cause to stop the vehicle to issue a warning or citation for the motor vehicle code violation. The Court dismissed the defendant’s arguments that the tourism argument did not have any relevance to the police. As the Court concluded that the stop was legal, the case will be remanded for trial unless the defendant files additional appeals.
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