Utah License Plate Violations

According to the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles, “All registered vehicles in Utah must display license plates.” What are other laws regarding license plates in Utah and what issues can arise from license plate violations?

Use of License Plates

Photo by: Jerry “Woody”

Officers on Utah roads can tell a lot about a vehicle by the license plate alone. By either scanning or entering in the information found on the plate, law enforcement can:

• Ensure the vehicle is registered and to whom;
• Check to see if the vehicle has been reported stolen;
• Locate a vehicle that may be suspected as being used in a crime;
• Find out if the person to whom the vehicle is registered has warrants out for their arrest; or
• Make sure the license plates displayed are on the correct vehicle.
License plates are regularly scanned and searched throughout the day and because of this, they must be able to be seen by nearby officers.


Having a license plate on a vehicle is futile if a plate is obstructed or placed in a low-visibility area. Many officers search license plates from inside their vehicles and need the plates to be visible from there. Utah Code 41-1a-404 regarding license plates and registration indicia state that “a license plate shall at all times be:

(a) Securely fastened:
i. In a horizontal position to the vehicle . . . to prevent the plate from swinging;
ii. At a height of not less than 12 inches from the ground . . .
iii. In a place and position to be clearly visible; and
(b) Maintained:
i. Free from foreign materials; and
ii. In a condition to be clearly legible.”

That section goes on to explain that as long as the license plate is installed correctly, the driver will not be issued an infraction for low visibility of the license plate if the plate is “. . . obscured exclusively by . . .

(a) a trailer hitch;
(b) A wheelchair lift or wheelchair carrier;
(c) A trailer being towed by the vehicle;
(d) A bicycle rack, ski rack, or luggage rack; or
(e) A similar cargo carrying device.”


The need for license plates to be visible is not saved for daylight hours only. Officers must also be able to read the plates when it’s dark. Besides the necessary head lamps and break lamps, all motor vehicles in Utah are required to have proper illumination of their rear license plates at night. Utah Code 41-6a-1604 reads: “Either a tail lamp or a separate lamp shall be so constructed and placed as to illuminate with a white light the rear registration plate.” When the bulb illuminating the rear license plate goes out, many drivers remain unaware as they seldom see the rear of their vehicle when the lights are on. For this reason, failure to illuminate a rear license plate is a common reason for traffic stops in Utah including those that lead to an arrest for other charges.

Rear AND front license plates

Photo by: Michael Durausch

Contrary to what is seen on several vehicles on the road, license plates are indeed required on the front of vehicles – not just the rear. If this is the case, why are there so many thousands of vehicles on Utah roads that are lacking the front license plate? Utah Code 41-1a-404 states “License plates issued for a vehicle other than a motorcycle, trailer, or semitrailer shall be attached to the vehicle, one in the front and the other in the rear.” That section goes on the note “Enforcement by a state or local law enforcement officer of the requirement . . . to attach a license plate to the front of a vehicle shall be only as a secondary action when the vehicle has been detained for a suspected violation by any person in the vehicle . . . other than that requirement . . . to attach a license plate to the front of the vehicle”. So although failure to display a front license plate can result in a traffic violation, it cannot be the reason a vehicle is pulled over in the first place.

Searches stemming from license plate violations

As stated above, many traffic stops begin with a license plate violation such as failure to illuminate plate or for having a plate obstructed from view. Once a vehicle is pulled over, more issues may arise depending on what the attending officer observes during the traffic stop. Often a stop for a license plate violation is made when an officer has a suspicion about one or more persons in the vehicle. The attending officer may request to search the vehicle or find probably cause to perform a search without consent. It is important for all drivers to know their rights regarding legitimate reasons for traffic stops involving license plates and any accompanying vehicle searches. For those who may be facing charges or who have concerns about whether or not their rights have been violated, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Is Possession of a Photo of Mexican Folk Saint Jesus Malverde Reasonable Suspicion of Drug Activity in Utah?

Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk saint known as the “Narco-saint” is celebrated by many individuals including those involved in drug trafficking; for this reason, any memorial item of him may be add to an officer’s reasonable suspicion of drug activity.

Jesus Malverde, the good bandit

Photo by: beautiful hustler -[inworld] –>hotwetkitty

Jesus Malverde is a folk saint believed by some to have lived in Mexico in the late 19th century. Although he is known by most Roman Catholics throughout Mexico, he is not officially recognized as a saint by the church. Malverde was said to have been a “good bandit”, who through his short life was responsible for regularly stealing from the rich to give back to his deprived fellow countrymen. Following his death, many who memorialize Malverde as a saint credit their ability to heal from injuries and sickness or find lost items to his spiritual influence.

Twisted folklore

Just as any folklore, the story of Jesus Malverde has slowly become distorted, with some using his image and name for immoral purposes. Over the years, drug traffickers began to claim Malverde had regularly protected drug lords such as El Chapo as well as the Mexican drug cartel from being arrested or killed. A shrine to honor Jesus Malverde was erected in his birthplace of Sinaloa, Mexico and was funded almost entirely by the drug cartel. Memorabilia including photos, statues, jewelry, candles, and even soap has been created with Malverde’s name or photo for worshipers to purchase. Unfortunately, because the drug cartel has usurped Malverde’s name, being in possession of any of those collectibles could give authorities reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in drug activity.

Targeted for religious icon

Photo by: Drew Stephens

Since Jesus Malverde’s name was tainted by drug cartel, anyone sporting souvenirs with Malverde’s image or name could be watched more closely by law enforcement. There have been several drug cases in which Jesus Malverde memorabilia helped convince law enforcement of possible drug activity. Two that took place in Utah included:

• U.S. V. Lopez-Gutierrez. Lopez was pulled over in Cedar City, Utah for a traffic violation when police “observed one picture of Jesus Malverde affixed to the dashboard and another hanging from Lopez’s necklace. The officer recognized the images of Jesus Malverde, who is considered a patron saint by some drug traffickers.” The officer observed other suspicious items such as an air freshener, rose, and three cell phones; thus proceeding to further question Lopez. After a K9 alerted on the car, a search of the vehicle turned up distribution amounts of methamphetamine.

• State of Utah V. Alverez. Alverez was seen stopping at an apartment complex, only to return moments later. Police became suspicious and waited for Alverez to return the next day. After he returned and reentered the complex, an officer “observed a facsimile of Jesus Malverde” and that “ through interviews he had conducted, Jesus Malverde was the patron saint of drug dealing.” When Alverez returned to the vehicle, officer discussed his lack of vehicle insurance, questioned him about drug use, and then forcefully made Alverez open his mouth where he was hiding 15 rubber balloons filled with illegal drugs.

Reasonable suspicion

Photo by: niceness

Utah Code 77-7-15 states, “a peace officer may stop any person in a public place when he has a reasonable suspicion to believe he has committed or is in the act of committing or is attempting to commit a public offense and may demand his name, address and an explanation of his actions.” Reasonable suspicion differs from probable cause in that with reasonable suspicion, there doesn’t need to be evidence of a crime, only a hunch by a trained law enforcement officer. If an officer sees drugs in a car through a window or a door, that officer would have probable cause to search the vehicle. If the same officer instead saw an item such as a picture of Jesus Malverde in the vehicle who is known to be worshipped by many, including drug traffickers, the officer could question the suspect under the claim that the photo added to his reasonable suspicion of possible drug activity.

Religious persecution

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . )”. Unless a religion give a valid cause for alarm such as a direct threat to the safety of the public, the separation of church and state should prohibit the government from determining what religion (or saint) citizens are allowed to worship without being accused of wrong-doing. By claiming souvenirs of Saint Jesus Malverde point to an increased chance of drug trafficking, the question of religious prosecution arises. Just because some who worship a religion or saint have criminal histories, not all who practice that religion or worship should be implicated as well. Just as not all Muslims are potential terrorists and not all white Christians are supremacists, it is unfair and unconstitutional to determine a person’s character or likelihood to commit a crime based on their choice of a religious icon.

Is the Exterior of a Vehicle Protected from Searches by Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

A growing number of Utah residents are now realizing they have rights regarding unreasonable searches of their vehicle, but does the exterior of a vehicle have the same reasonable expectation of privacy?

Interior searches on vehicles

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An officer does not have permission to search the interior of a person’s vehicle unless they have permission, a warrant, or probable cause to do so. If the driver does not make the common mistake of trying to be overly agreeable by allowing an officer to perform an unreasonable search on a car, then the officer has to have a probable cause to search the car. Probable cause can include drugs in plain view or if the driver was going to be arrested anyway for a DUI, warrant, or other crime. If there is no probable cause for a search, it is okay to politely decline an unreasonable search.

Exterior searches of vehicles

Law enforcement are permitted to do a visible search of the exterior of a vehicle and this type of search should be expected during a traffic stops. If something illegal on the exterior of a vehicle is visible to the police officer, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Some exterior searches can go too far however. If an officer brings out a forensic kit, then the search could be headed towards a Fourth Amendment rights violation against a person’s belongings or property.

Fourth Amendment violation

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An owner of a vehicle has possession of the entire car, not just the interior. Fingerprints, DNA, or other possible microscopic evidence on the vehicle that is not visible to the naked eye should be protected. If a driver leaves their car temporarily unattended in a public place, this does not give law enforcement permission to then swoop in to perform forensic searches of the car. Even when not occupied, the vehicle is still considered to be in their possession of the owner. Otherwise, they would not be liable for anything related to the car in their absence, such as parking tickets.

Possible rights violation? Ask an attorney prior to court date

If a search has been made of the interior or exterior of a vehicle and the proper channels were not followed to conduct those searches, anything found could be thrown out in court. It is important to discuss whether or not there is an option to dismiss evidence from unreasonable search and seizures. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help defendants fully understand their rights regarding searches and seizures and whether or not they had a reasonable expectation of privacy during a police search.