License Plates – Who Needs ‘Em?

The Texas legislature only meets biannually, every other odd-numbered year, for sessions of no more than 140 days. How, you might ask, does a state as vast, as prosperous, as large and complex as Texas manage to get by with a law-making body that works so little?

I remember my father telling me, when I asked that same question as a boy, that the Texas Legislature screwed up enough in 6 months to last the state for two years. And if you have followed the machinations in Austin with any level of attention over the years of redistricting, “tort reform,” mandatory HPV vaccinations and budget fights, you would have to agree.

But this last session, and a particular amendment to our state codes, proves that point perfectly.

Beginning January 1, 2012, due to an oversight with amendments to the Transportation Code, it is no longer against the law to drive a car without a license plate, on the front or the back. Let me make that clear: you can drive around in your car with absolutely no license plates, and it is not illegal.

In addition, there is no way for the state to address the issue until January 2013, unless Governor Perry, fresh off his failed presidential bid, decides to call a special session to deal with it.

Specifically, the amendment erased §502.404 of the Texas Transportation Code that made not having a plate a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $200. It actually now only states that it is a violation to drive with an invalid or out-of-date registration sticker, but since it erased the section about the misdemeanor, it’s questionable whether you can be ticketed for having expired registration, too.  HB2357

Besides the obvious problem, being the headache created for law enforcement that millions of automobiles without identifying plates would cause (because, let’s be honest, there will not be a rash of millions of folks yanking off their plates just because they can), there is another, more important aspect to this screw-up: police officers may no longer use the lack of a front license plate as probable cause to pull over a person and make a play for a DWI arrest.

Law enforcement has long used the lack of a (almost always) front license plate as an excuse to legally pull over a car and get a look inside at the occupants, especially the driver. Now, with this snafu, pulling over a car for that offense is no longer probable cause, and no longer leads to a reasonable search and seizure. Fruit of the poisonous tree (the tainted results from the bad search) cannot be introduced as evidence in court. Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. United States, 251 U.S. 385 (1920).

The first time I heard my Baptist-church-pillar, teetotaling grandmother curse involved her and me, aged about 11, being pulled over at a DWI checkpoint in East Texas by state troopers. When she told the trooper she didn’t know she was required to put the front plate on, he told her, “That’s why we give you two, lady.”

Her reply was to mutter and call him “that little ____!” in a non-complimentary way which I will not sully her memory with repeating fully. She then told me not to tell my mother, and I held that bargain, until just now, in the interest of educating the public.

Of course, a couple of eagle-eyed folks at a couple of TV stations around the state noticed the foul-up, and interviewed some law enforcement types about the situation. The gist of the officers response was that law enforcement intends to continue to pull people over without plates and use that as probable cause, leaving it to the courts to deal with the mess. So to restate: POLICE WILL CONTINUE TO PULL YOU OVER FOR NOT HAVING A PLATE, ARREST YOU FOR DWI, AND THEN FORCE YOU TO FORCE THE COURT TO DISMISS THE CASE.

Now if only the Texas legislature could “mistakenly” erase the part of state law that gives you the right to an attorney, law enforcement would have it made.