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
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
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
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.