Ohio Court of Appeals Decides Obscured License Plate Case
On a snowy January 29, 2010, Lakewood police observed a 2003 gray Mitsubishi Eclipse driving down the middle of a street due to snow banks on either side of the road. The officer decided to follow the car and observed that he could not read the license plate because it was partially obscured by snow. After initiating a traffic stop the officer testified that the snow either fell off or he brushed it off and was able to read the license plate. The officer made contact with the driver who was eventually arrested for DUI.
At his motion to suppress hearing, the driver argued that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain him for OVI when the basis of the stop was a partially obscured license plate which became visible prior to the officer having contact with him. The definition of “reasonable suspicion” entails some minimal level of objective justification for making a traffic stop; this is something more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or “hunch,” but something less than the level of suspicion required for probable cause. Terry at 21. The existence of reasonable suspicion is based upon an objective and particularized suspicion that criminal activity was afoot and must be based on a totality of the surrounding circumstances. State v. Abdulrahman, Cuyahoga App. No 95159, 2011-Ohio 1931, citing State v. Andrews (1991), 57 Ohio St.3d 86, 565 N.E.2d 1271. The 8th District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County) agreed with this argument.
“Once Comerford got out of his zone car and approached Shelton’s car, he could read the license plate,” Judge Larry A. Jones wrote for the court. “And although he testified that he also pulled Shelton over because he had been driving in the middle of the street, we agree with the trial court’s assessment that Shelton’s driving in the middle of an unmarked street during winter with snow piled on the sides of the street did not give the officer reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity.” The court relied upon a 1984 Ohio Supreme Court ruling, State v. Chatton (1984), 11 Ohio St.3d 59, 463 N.E.2d 1237, wherein an officer stopped a car because no license plate was visible on the vehicle. Upon approaching the car the officer saw a temporary plate lying in the rear window of the vehicle. The Court ruled that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion of a legal violation once he determined that a plate existed.
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