A Florida judge just upheld a traffic stop that led to drug charges over a ridiculously small detail


A state appeals court Wednesday said a police officer was allowed to stop a Miami-Dade County motorist because the word “Florida” on the car’s license plate was obscured by a metal frame.

While expressing concern about its ruling, a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a lower-court decision that suppressed evidence obtained in a 2015 traffic stop of motorist Marcelo Pena. A search of the car led to the discovery of a bag that contained alprazolam pills and a drug charge against Pena, the ruling said.

Pena’s car had a rear license plate with a metal frame that obscured the words “MyFlorida.com” from the top part of the plate and “Sunshine State” from the bottom part. Pena was not the subject of an investigation at the time, but Officer Carl Sanabria stopped the car to issue a citation because of a violation of a state license-plate law.

The frame — described as being similar to frames provided by auto dealers — did not obscure the identification or decal numbers on the license plate. But after the officer made the stop, he arrested Pena for driving with a suspended license. Also, thinking he smelled marijuana, the officer searched the car and found the pills, the ruling said.

A Miami-Dade County circuit judge said the traffic stop was illegal and granted a motion by Pena to suppress statements and the evidence found in the car.

But the appeals court said the Legislature in 2005 changed a law to require that the word “Florida” on license plates to be unobscured. As a result, it said the evidence should not have been suppressed.

“Here, the suppression hearing evidence was undisputed that the word ‘Florida’ was obscured by the frame on Pena’s tag,” said the eight-page ruling, written by Judge Robert Luck and joined by Chief Judge Leslie Rothenberg and Judge Vance Salter. “The word ‘Florida’ on Pena’s tag was not clear and distinct and free from obscuring matter.”

Nevertheless, the court expressed apprehension about the issue. Partially quoting from another court’s ruling, it said that “license plate rims and frames are ‘a common practice of long-standing among the citizens of our state’; ‘are frequently supplied by car dealers’; and ‘many otherwise law-abiding citizens install them specifically to show allegiance to a club, fraternity, college or sports team or as a means of other self-expression.’ But the Legislature gets to make the laws that govern our public roads and highways.”

In a footnote to Wednesday’s ruling, the court said the Legislature as of Jan. 1, 2016, changed the law to effectively eliminate the requirement that the word “Florida” be unobscured on license plates. But it said that was too late for Pena.

“Of course, the probable cause determination is made based on the facts and law at the time of the arrest … so we only look to the 2015 version … for purposes of determining whether Detective Sanabria’s stop of Pena’s car was lawful,” the footnote said.

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