Friday, March 04, 2011

DUI Appeal of the Day (DAD) - License Plate Covering Makes Stop 'Unspirited'

This case comes to the attention of DAD through the watchful eyes of NCDD member Richard Mulhearn. In Commonwealth v. Miller, the trial court found that the stop of the defendant was unlawful, where the defendant had covered the portion of the plates of his car with black tape over the words 'Spirit of America.' The stripe did not cover the license plate number, the sticker that identified the month of registration or the word 'Massachusetts' in any way.

On appeal, the court found that the regulation was invalid to the extent that it prohibited a plate from being covered, even of the identifying information itself was clearly visible, such as the numbers and expiration tags. However, the court had to decide whether the trooper stop was based on mistake of law or mistake of fact. If it was the latter, then the stop itself would still be valid. The court stated:

The plain language of the regulation demonstrates that it is inapplicable to this case because it only relates to license plate frames, not "stripes."

* * * *
Because the trooper based his stop on the entirely erroneous belief that the stripe on the defendant's license plate violated 540 Code Mass. Regs. § 2.23(3), the stop was based on a mistake of law and not one of fact. 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. See Commonwealth v. Porter P., 456 Mass. 254, 267-268 (2010) (search invalid where officer misunderstood law and incorrectly determined that manager could consent to search of juvenile's room). 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.

NOTE: The case also contains a helpful analysis of how to attack the validity of a regulation, when it exceeds the scope of the enabling clause that was granted to the agency that promulgated the reg. This legal analysis can often be employed when attacking police regulations that deal with blood and breath testing...

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