State Lawmaker Proposes Clarifying Law to Avoid Criminalizing ‘Hundreds of Thousands of Pa. Drivers’

Senate Education Committee Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, leads a hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

by Marley Parish, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Responding to a court decision that affirmed the right of law enforcement to stop drivers if any part of their license plate is obscured, a Republican lawmaker has plans to clarify state law to avoid criminalizing “hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania drivers.”

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, has proposed amending the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code to state that only important, identifiable information must be visible on a license plate.

The proposal, introduced in a memo seeking legislative support last week, comes days after a state appellate court ruled that police may pull a person over if any part of their license plate is blocked. That includes letters and numbers, the state’s official tourism website — — and the surrounding paint.

“The consequence of this decision has likely made thousands of Pennsylvania drivers in violation of the law overnight,” Martin wrote in the memo seeking colleagues’ support.

The court decision surrounds a case filed after an April 2021 traffic stop in Philadelphia. A police officer pulled over a driver due to a “partially obstructed registration plate,” specifically the state’s tourism website.

During the stop, the officer noticed Derrick Ruffin, the front-seat passenger, was making “furtive movements,” seemingly to conceal something. The officer conducted a “protective sweep” and found a loaded revolver, additional ammunition, and marijuana. Ruffin was not licensed to carry a firearm or drive a car, and the vehicle was not registered.

At a pretrial hearing last year, Ruffin argued that the officer had no grounds to pull him over, saying that the plate’s numbers and letters were legible, according to court documents. A lower court moved to suppress the evidence recovered during the stop, ruling that an obstructed website does not justify a traffic stop.

Existing law states that it’s unlawful to display a license plate that is so dirty that the numbers and letters are illegible from a “reasonable distance.” The code also prohibits license plate obstructions that prevent red light cameras or toll collection systems from reading the plate.

Last week’s Superior Court decision, issued by a three-judge panel, reverses the previous ruling — prompting concerns over enforcement and how many Pennsylvania drivers could be breaking the law by having a vanity frame that blocks a portion of their plate.

“This decision would now mean that any one of those drivers could be pulled over with probable cause,” Martin wrote in the memo, describing parked cars with custom license plate frames. “I do not believe this was the intent of lawmakers, and how can we reasonably expect law enforcement to consistently apply this ruling in their daily activities?”

Martin added that the ruling is “not a reflection of preferred outcomes,” saying that it’s the court’s job to “interpret the meaning of the law.”

“Surely, it is not their intent to criminalize hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania drivers, but rather a call to the Legislature to now perform its responsibility and better clarify language in the statute,” he wrote.

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