In Iowa, a license plate frame gets drivers tagged by police

It might be time to reconsider that license plate frame boasting your allegiance to your favorite baseball team, charitable cause or alma mater, especially if you’re driving in The Hawkeye State.

The Iowa Supreme Court just ruled that drivers whose cars display the frames can be stopped if they obscure the small print below the plate numbers. The decision ended a five-year court battle stemming from the 2009 traffic stop of a man suspected of dealing drugs based on information from a confidential informant. The court ruled 5-2 last week that a 1984 law requiring drivers to “permit full view of all numerals and letters” on the plate includes the county name.

“While a person who sees a driver commit a crime may not be able to remember a complete license plate number, the person may be more easily able to recall the county name,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote. “This would narrow the search to identify the vehicle. The county name on a plate also shows whether a vehicle is registered locally or not, which may be relevant in identifying suspicious behavior.”

Citing "clear and unambiguous" state law, Waterman ruled that the county name is an “integral element” of the plate since it helps identify vehicles and said all numerals and letters must be clearly visible -- not just the larger, primary six-character identifier.


But Justice Brent Appel dissented, saying countless Iowans who drive in the state with license plate frames better check their car as soon as possible, equating the ruling to a “general warrant” of sorts for police.

“In the meantime, the take-away point for Iowa citizens is that they better go out to the garage and check their license plate frames if they want to avoid being pulled over by law enforcement on the open road,” Appel wrote. “For the thousands of Iowans who have a frame that promotes a sports team, or an auto dealer, or have a nice (or not so nice) slogan, beware! If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate, the state will take the position that police may stop the vehicle anywhere and at any time, whether one is dropping the kids off at school, returning home from the football game, or on the way to work, without any further sign of criminal wrongdoing … Sounds a bit like a general warrant, doesn’t it?”

One aspect of the larger story that “should not be overlooked,” however, according to Appel, is that Davenport police received a tip from a confidential informant -- rather than a citizen informant -- for the 2009 traffic stop. A tip from a confidential information, Appel wrote, is not entitled to a presumption of reliability.

Prosecutors offered no evidence on the informant’s reliability and instead relied on corroboration at the scene, Appel wrote, consisting almost solely of facts like the make, model and license plate number of the red Jeep Cherokee driven by 38-year-old Craig Harrison. Officers Craig Burkle and Jason Ellerbach were driving in an unmarked Crown Victoria when they received a phone call from a confidential informant claiming they would find “a black male . . . slinging dope” in the vehicle.

Harrison was later found in possession of 18 pre-packaged crack cocaine rocks and charged with possession with intent to deliver and other offenses. Harrison was not charged with the plate violation -- a $20 fine -- but challenged the legality of the stop, arguing that the law only required the display of the larger letter and numbers on the plate. His attorneys also noted that law enforcement officials do not use the county identifying information during stops, and that roughly 50,000 vehicles using specialty plates for Iowa colleges, war organizations and such do not include county information.

Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association, told that the ruling won’t change much for the 320 dealerships he represents in the state since guidance was issued as recently as last summer to assume that the relevant statute included all characters on the plate. Dealers typically provide the frames advertising their businesses with cars they sell.

“Any fair reading of the statute will conclude that,” Anderson told “I don’t think the ruling changes much around here. It will become a legislative issue and I think it’s very likely that we’ll be involved in a push [to take the county names off the plates].”

The names of the state’s 99 counties don’t need to be on the plates at all, Anderson said.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Carlson, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, echoed Anderson’s take, saying he, too, thinks the issue will see a legislative fix sometime soon.

“The legislature could fix that if they find it’s a problem,” Carlson told “But if the legislature doesn’t change the statute, then people need to be careful about the types of license plate frames they buy and make sure everything’s visible.”

David Law, professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said it seems rather unnecessary for the law to require that the county name be visible, but it'd be far from the only law of "dubious utility" in our country.

"The practical lesson for Iowans who are concerned about the implications of this decision for their privacy is that if they don't want to give the police any opportunity to pull them over, one of the [many] things they will have to do is make sure that no letter or numeral of any kind on their license plate is covered up, regardless of whether the letters or numbers are needed to identify the car," Law wrote in an email. "Or, they can ask their legislators to change it."