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.

Visibility

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.”

Illumination

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.

No Reason Needed For Police to Ask to Enter Home

Police do not need a valid reason to ask someone if they can enter a home and unless a warrant is served, homeowners do not need to comply with the request.

Respect but protect

Photo by: West Midlands Police

Many Utah residents acknowledge police officers as being authority figures who can often be seen as intimidating. When an officer knocks on someone’s door, the first reaction a resident may have is to comply completely with anything the officer asks of them. They may think that anything other than complete submission is a sign of guilt. This can lead to a resident waiving his Fourth Amendment rights.

Knock and talk

In order for police officers to enter a home without permission, they need to have a legal warrant or reasonable grounds to do so. With a warrant in hand, police have the right to enter and search any areas outlined in the warrant. If officers do not have a warrant and have no valid reason to enter a home, they are still allowed to knock on the door, just like anybody else can. This is known as a simple “knock and talk”.

Permission not granted

During a “friendly” knock and talk, the homeowner has the option to:

• Talk to officers through the closed door;
• Open the door and answer questions at the door;
• Go outside to speak to officers on the porch; or
• Invite officers inside the residence to talk.

Unfortunately with nervousness and intimidation at work, the majority of people will be overly agreeable and give officers permission to enter their home. Once this is done, that resident has forfeited the protection given them under the Fourth Amendment. Utah residents are encouraged to keep calm when police come knocking and to be respectful while also protecting their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. If permission is not given and officers enter and search the home anyway, any evidence could be no admissible in court. It is best to consult with an attorney regarding these matters.

Law Enforcement Use of GPS Tracking Devices

Law enforcement officers have different measures to obtain information about a potential suspect including the use of “slap-on” GPS tracking devices attached to vehicles. Without a warrant however, this practice may constitute a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches.

GPS tracking devices

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

The “slap-on” GPS tracking devices are mechanisms that can be placed inconspicuously on the undercarriage of a vehicle allowing police the ability to track the movement and location of said vehicle. These tracking tools allow law enforcement to keep tabs on potential suspects over an extended period of time and can be used to learn the whereabouts of illegal activity.

Protection from unreasonable searches

For several years, “slap-on” GPS tracking devices were under debate, with many claiming they violated a person’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches. The Fourth Amendment states “The right of the people to be secure ( . . . ) against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ( . . . ). In October of 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that GPS tracking devices constituted a “search” and law enforcement must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before placing such devices on a vehicle.

Ankle monitors

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

While tracking devices on vehicles were deemed unconstitutional without a warrant, the question was raised whether or not SBM monitors, commonly referred to as ankle monitors should fall under the same scrutiny (Grady v. North Carolina). Each state has their own specific uses for electronic tracking in the form of ankle monitors. Some states use these devices to forever track the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders after they have finished their sentencing. Other states such as Utah permit law enforcement to use ankle monitors on individuals placed on probation. (Utah Code 77-18-1.16)

Grey area

As law enforcement’s use of electronic searches is being evaluated, it is wise to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights are not being violated by the use of tracking devices or other means of technological trespass.