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Random License Plate Checks in Georgia

Posted by Sean A. Black | Apr 19, 2017 | 10 Comments

A driver of the vehicle committed no moving violations and did nothing suspicious. An officer behind the vehicle decides to call in his license plate number or run a computerized check from the patrol vehicle. That check reveals that the license plate on the vehicle does not match the vehicle.

Of course, driving a vehicle with the wrong tag on it is a violation of Georgia law. It authorizes a stop of the vehicle and the issuance of a citation of the driver and an impounding of the vehicle. O.C.G.A. §§ 40-2-5, 40-2-8.

Is there a constitutional violation which would protect the driver regarding the stop? Does the officer have to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause before running that check?

The officer does not need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to have dispatch check the license or to run a computerized check.

A driver does not have any expectation of privacy regarding the characters of his license plate. The license plate is in plain view. Checking the license plate does not restrict or interfere with the driver's operation of the vehicle; it does not constitute a seizure of the person or the vehicle.

In short, there does not appear to be a Fourth Amendment implication to an officer randomly checking license plates.

About the Author

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.

Comments

Elizabeth Fayette Reply

Posted Mar 21, 2020 at 21:49:40

Regarding PC to run tags… if officer runs tag and has no current wants/warrants, etc but registered owner does have a criminal past, can they pull you over, request search and for driver to do field sobriety when there is no drug/alcohol use of any type.

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Mar 23, 2020 at 06:16:00

This becomes a test of how experienced and smart the law enforcement officer is in crafting his report and/or testimony.

The basic check by radio does not really go into the details you describe. My understanding is that with laptops, they may be able to access more information.

Let us assume that the officer sees no vehicle or license issues and no arrest warrants and no active probation or parole supervision, etc., but does see that the person had a drug case or cases years ago.

If they observe no traffic violation, then it would be inappropriate for them to stop the driver. It would be an unreasonable search and seizure.

The reality, though, is that the officer is not going to testify that he or she saw no violation. The officer is going to say you were going too fast for conditions, that you weaved within your lane, that your tire touched the fog line or the yellow line, that your license plate frame kept him from seeing your county decal or year decal, that one of your tag lights was burned out, etc. There are literally hundreds of justifications that the officer can make to pull someone over.

Unfortunately, most trial court judges do not want to call BS on this kind of thing.

Jaime McCord Reply

Posted Apr 04, 2021 at 12:25:14

If the officer misread tag or gave wrong tag number and it doesn’t come back to that vehicle is that stop illegal?

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Apr 05, 2021 at 06:36:34

If the officer made a mistake in writing down or entering the tag number, that does not necessarily make the stop illegal. There are particular facts that would have to be explored.

Alfred Robinson Reply

Posted Jun 09, 2021 at 00:35:25

I was pulled for the 3rd time in a month by a officer. The 3rd time my temporary tag fell off and the officer pulled me over, towed my car searched 3 times, including under my testicles, feet, under hat. The 4 search a officer found a residue baggie that tested positive for fentinol. Was this legal??

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jun 09, 2021 at 06:22:57

For traffic stops, the issue is whether the officer can give a reason for conducting the stop. A missing, obscured, or damaged tag would be a valid reason for a stop.

There are typically two ways that a search occurs after that: consent and probable cause. Without knowing more, including the officer’s report, it is hard for me to answer whether there was consent or probable cause. The type of invasive search you describe is pretty unusual.

Another possibility is if you are under a bond condition or probation conditions which includes a Fourth Amendment waiver, you could be subject to stop without consent or probable cause.

April McCall Reply

Posted Jun 19, 2021 at 12:29:40

I was pulled over. Of course, I was driving. In addition to that the owner was also in the car. The officer noticed the covering/ frame on the car and hit his lights, proceeded to the passenger side said nothing to me.. Only to the owner and then issued me the tag frame ticket. Is this legal?

Stephe Reply

Posted Jun 21, 2021 at 02:09:38

A cop pulled me over today and the reason he did was when he ran my plate he said it belong to a black camaro not a red one. He said, he thought maybe it could of been stolen. If he ran my plates and it wasn’t reported stolen why would he be able to assume that? In turn being able to pull me over for it?

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jun 21, 2021 at 08:26:35

As I have said, there is very little other than departmental policy to prevent an on-duty officer from running anyone’s tag number. Most departmental policies allow for that. With license plate readers, it can happen hundreds of times per hour.

However, when a plate comes back with no “hits,” there ceases to be a reason to pull it over unless some violation is occurred.

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jun 21, 2021 at 08:29:00

The officer can approach the vehicle from either side. Some will say that it is for officer safety if there is moderate or heavy traffic. Others say that it gives them a chance to assess the other persons in the vehicle. So long as the time spent is not extended beyond what is necessary for the observed violation, there is very little that can be said about the tactic.

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