Can I Be Cited for a Traffic Violation If There Is Mud on My License Plate?

December 6th, 2019 by Tad Nelson in Traffic Offenses

Even if you are a careful, responsible driver, there may be situations where you are cited for a traffic violation where you were unaware of the underlying cause. For example, under Section 504.945 of the Texas Transportation Code, a driver may be cited if the license plate on their vehicle “has a coating, covering, protective substance, or other material that … alters or obscures” the numbers, letters, colors, or state name on the plate. And according to one recent decision by a Texas appellate court, it is still a traffic violation even if the driver did not deliberately alter or obstruct the plate.

Obstructed License Plate Leads to Drug Arrest, Conviction

The case, Banegas v. State, actually involved a defendant charged with drug possession. Before the trial court, he alleged the underlying traffic stop leading to his arrest was unconstitutional. More precisely, the defense maintained the arresting officer misconstrued the application of Section 504.945.

Here is briefly what happened. Police in El Paso received an “anonymous tip” connecting the defendant to illegal drug activities. After conducting surveillance of the defendant, police asked the local sheriff’s department to “find a valid reason” to initiate a traffic stop of the defendant so they could search his vehicle for drugs.

A sheriff’s deputy subsequently pulled the defendant over for having an “obstructed license plate” in violation of Section 504.945. The deputy said that mud was covering most of the defendant’s license plate, making it “unreadable” and “obscured.” After initiating the stop, the defendant agreed to a search of his vehicle, which uncovered evidence leading to his arrest on the drug charge.

The Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals, affirming the defendant’s conviction, held the deputy did nothing illegal. The Court noted that a person violates Section 504.945 if they “attach” or “display” certain items that alter or obscure the license plate. To “attach” requires some affirmative act on the part of the driver, the Court noted, but to “display” does not. Therefore, it was a traffic violation when someone “drives a vehicle with an obscured license plate, regardless of whether the person engaged in any intentional conduct that caused the obstruction.”

And even if the deputy who arrested the defendant had improperly understood the law on this point, the Eighth District said the defendant’s arrest would still be valid. Under binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, an “objectively reasonable” mistake of law does not “vitiate” the “reasonable suspicion” necessary to justify detaining or arresting a defendant. Although Texas courts in the past have ruled otherwise, the Eighth District said here that it was compelled by the Supreme Court to find the deputy’s actions were “objectively reasonable.”

Speak with a Houston Traffic Violations Defense Lawyer Today

If you are cited for a traffic violation, you have certain legal rights to contest your ticket in court. An experienced Houston traffic ticket lawyer can help. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need legal advice or assistance. Call 281-280-0100.

 

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