License Plate Frames Could Get You Arrested for DWI in Texas

Blog Readers: We encourage you to copy this article and email it to all your Texas friends. This information needs to be shared, especially as it could help someone avoid serious consequences.

It is now a crime to have a covering that obscures any part of the Texas license plate.

Statute §502.409 of the Texas Transportation Code states so. Since being passed by the Texas State Legislature in 2003 it has only been randomly enforced, partly because the legality of the statute was being reviewed by the 5th Circuit Appellate Court in New Orleans. But that changed last May when the federal court ruled that a person commits an offense if a vehicle:

1) has an attached illuminated device or sticker, decal, emblem or other insignia that is not authorized by law and that interferes with the readability of the letters or numbers on the plate or the name of the state in which with vehicle is registered; or

2) has a coating, covering or protective material that:
a. distorts angular visibility or detectability; or
b. alters or obscures the letters or numbers on the plate, the color of the plate, or another original design featureof the plate.

Note that this includes any obstruction of any of part of the design features of a license plate. It doesn’t have to be something as extreme as a colored plastic cover; you are in violation of the law if even part of the word ‘Texas’ is covered. The frame put on your car by the automobile dealership or that salute to your favorite sports team could earn you a traffic ticket.

As frustrating as that may be, it could be only the beginning of your problems.

We need to preface the next bit of news by saying that we do not condone drunk drinking. It is a criminal offense and a threat to public safety. Unfortunately responsible social drinking is increasingly becoming criminalized too. Shawn Brown, a San Antonio Texas DWI defense lawyer, cites as many as 40% of his clients were under the legal limit for blood alcohol content when they were stopped for suspicion of DWI. Their breath tests confirmed a BAC under .08, yet they were still arrested.

This stems from a liability concern on the part of the police. If the presence of any alcohol is detected, they are hesitant to release a driver and later learn of an alcohol related accident. Somewhat understandable, but certainly a nightmare for the innocent drivers ensnared by this approach. And don’t try to distinguish yourself from the image of an alcoholic on the road; in today’s world you can be arrested for even the slightest presence of alcohol.

You probably are wondering what this has to do with license plate frames, but another piece of information needs to be added first. Texas law enforcement agencies are increasingly developing Selective Traffic Enforcement Programs (S.T.E.P.) that create drunk driving task forces. These programs use federal funds to pay for extra police cars, special equipment and overtime pay for officers who volunteer to be a part of a drunk driving campaign. They have turned into quite a cash bonanza for police officers, as evidenced by the Houston officer who earned over $100,000 in extra income last year. Under the program, the officers not only get extra pay for being on extra patrols, they earn a minimum of 3 hours of pay at 1.5 times normal salary for each court appearance involving a DWI arrest. The result is the more DWI arrests an officer makes, the more pay he receives.

So police involved with S.T.E.P. task forces are looking for every opportunity to stop a driver. And that includes something like an illegal license plate cover. Do not forget this; if any presence of alcohol is detected during a traffic stop, the odds of being arrested are high. Even if it starts with a simple or routine stop, even if your BAC is under .08 and even if there are no signs of driving impairment, if they smell alcohol, you probably aren’t going home that evening.

Fair or not, it certainly doesn’t help to know that the arresting officer will likely make extra money for each such arrest.

So don’t give an police officer any reason to stop you. Yes, drink responsibly but also remove those license plate frames.

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