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Random License Plate Checks in Georgia

Posted by Sean A. Black | Apr 19, 2017 | 28 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.


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.

Charles Reedy Reply

Posted Jan 31, 2022 at 20:29:03

If I made no traffic violation or broken no laws
Can police Randomly run my tag
This happened to me today Smyrna police officer ran my tags while behind me he never pulled me over once he confirm there was no once or violations he spun off this was extremely nerve-racking and a type of profiling i’m an African American male who was driving a expensive sports car when I reported it to his supervisor I was told the police can randomly run any tags for verification and don’t need any reason sergeant King from the smyrna Police Department told me that

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Feb 01, 2022 at 05:58:46

Unlike many things that police officers tell people, that one is absolutely true. If you are driving on the road, the patrol officer can run a tag that he sees to verify current registration status, insurance coverage, and whether there are any wants associated with the owner of the vehicle. In fact, it is now high tech. Many departments are running license plate readers either on patrol cars or on fixed positions that can run every tag that one of its cameras gets a shot of. The computer then gives an alert if there is an issue.

More bad news. At least in terms of automobile stops, the US Supreme Court decided in 1996 that an officer’s improper motives for a stop did not matter so long as the officer could point to a legitimate reason for a stop. That horrible decision was Whren v. United States. As a consequence, I see all kinds of garbage reasons for stops.

Cobi Reply

Posted Feb 08, 2022 at 07:48:31

Hello, an officer was in the HOV lane driving, I was next to the HOV lane, he crossed the double lines, got behind me, sped up, I’m assuming ran my tag, then got back in the HOV lane. I continued on. 20 minutes later, he pulls me over and says I was speeding. My car says I was going 69, he says I was going 99. When I pulled up the speedometer history (linked to my phone on the Chevy app) it says I was going 68. He then stated he wouldn’t write me a ticket, just a warning. He proceeded to ask questions lol, how I could afford a nice car lol, where I went to school, where I was from, I answered none of his questions just stared at him. He told me to sit tight I was getting a citation for speeding. I have the entire incident on camera from my dash cams to the phone after he pulled me over. What do you think? I think I was profiled a little, when he ran my plates and saw nothing, he basically stayed on either the left or right lanes and eventually cited me only after I wouldn’t answer his questions

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Feb 08, 2022 at 08:13:26

It is great that you are using the telemetry from your vehicle and dashcams. It gives you great backup to your statements about what happened. You need to save a couple of copies of those file in different places to make sure they do not get lost. You do not say what the speed limit was in that area, but I am assuming that 68 or 69 mph was probably speeding, but not by a lot. You also do not say what the speed cited was.

Hard to say what the officer’s thinking / intention was. It sounds a little suspect.

Ted Rogers Reply

Posted Apr 14, 2022 at 17:53:42

This is crazy:
The police are the ONLY ones who have the special tools to read passed the “publicly displayed” numbers of the plate.
John Q public cannot do that, why? Not because he doesn’t have the tools (or know a corrupt cop) but because the information behind the number IS private.
If it was not, then John and Jane Q can collect plate numbers and go demand DMV give them the individuals names and addresses, etc.

This should challenged again and again, in a more focused manner.

For example, in a Terry patdown, the patdown is for safety, not for evidence or information, meaning: If you have lawfully refused to identify yourself (other than verbally) and the officer decides to do a (Terry) patdown (the only way they can do a patdown), the officer may not pull out your wallet for the purpose to go through it for an ID.

So, no, police may not randomly run tags; just as they may not randomly search people for ID.

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Apr 15, 2022 at 06:50:49

Under current law, they can and do randomly run tags. Now, if they ran a tag for some private purpose, that can be a misuse of the system. But, just seeing a tag and running it while on patrol is fine under current law.

And, if you think that is crazy, it is really going to blow your mind when you learn about automated license plate readers which can read and run hundreds of plates per hour. Those readers are present both on patrol cars and in stationary installations, for instance on the interstates near state lines and then periodically along the highway. Not only that, I read an article a couple of weeks ago that detailed how Gwinnett County in Georgia is paying to install license plate readers in hotel parking lots with the permission of the hotels. Those just collect huge databases of the cars that pass by the positions. Then, if the police need to go back and see what plates passed around a certain time or to track a certain plate number, they can do so.

Linearie briscoe Reply

Posted May 25, 2022 at 14:52:35

If two names is on registration but tag in one person name but the other has a warrant does the police see that if they run tag numbers in

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted May 26, 2022 at 06:11:25

I have not operated the device so I cannot say for sure. But, my guess is they get an alert that there is a warrant associated with a registered owner of the vehicle. Then, if they drill down into the information, they would see that the warrant was only for one owner. Of course, they are still probably pulling the vehicle over.

Bill Reply

Posted Jun 13, 2022 at 08:52:19

A man is standing on a public sidewalk. He is holding a sign showing his support for veterans. Police are dispatched because people were “feeling uncomfortable”. Officers ask to id the man, he refuses, the officers try to engage in small talk, the man says “I don’t answer questions”. The police see that there is a car parked legally near by. They ask the man, is that your car, he replies that he doesn’t’ answer questions. They run the plates on the car in an attempt to get the mans name. When asked why one of the officers say “because we like to know who we are talking to and you refuse to identify”. Not only does this sound like an intimidation on the man for exercising constitutional rights, but there is no problem with a parked vehicle on public property so no reason to run the plate. It was an intimidation tactic to gain identify of someone who wants to to remain anonymous. A violation of 1st & 4th amendment and 18 US 242 & “maybe” 241 (2 officers conspiring). Am I wrong here?

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jun 13, 2022 at 11:16:14

So, you are right that you are not required to give your identifying information in this situation. You are incorrect when you suggest that law enforcement has to have a reason to run a vehicle plate. They do not. They cannot run a plate for an improper purpose, such as to identify a person that they want to pursue a relationship with, or to facilitate a criminal act, or to pursue some private interest. But, unless the policy of their department puts some additional limitations on them, I am not aware of anything restricting them from running a license plate that is publicly visible.

Justin Turner. Reply

Posted Jul 15, 2022 at 22:30:17

Hey. Sorry for bothering you but got a question. If you are breaking no laws absolutely zero and you have video of the cop from so far back he legally can’t see anything your doing. Can’t tell if you even crossed line by 2 inches and that on video but pulls you over down the road and again Cameron was on the speed and was showing above wheel and can prove no speeding no crossing lines tag light everything is legal and can prove all legal with papers from check up from yesterday and video. 100 percent no reason for the pull. Trying to keep short using these words and way using. He run tag which is legal finds a warrent from ticket you forgot or whatever just sees warrent. You again can prove that’s why he pulled you over. Can he take you to jail. He can’t prove anything cant prove it was even the person the warrent was issued not by looking. So he takes you to jail did he pull u over illegally since it wasn’t even probably

Stan Reply

Posted Jul 17, 2022 at 12:05:33

Is it legal for a cop to pull you over for having an out of county tag? For instance. I have a Clayton county tag but got pulled over in another county because my tag was not from that county.

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jul 19, 2022 at 06:32:56

If the officer or an automated plate reader runs your plate and it shows that the owner of the vehicle has a warrant, the officer can stop the vehicle for the purpose of determining whether that person is in the vehicle. If they find that person in the vehicle, they can arrest them and take them to the jail on the warrant. Depending on the age of the warrant or the underlying offenses or the originating jurisdiction of the warrant, the officer may have dispatch check to see if the warrant is still good, but the officer would be within bounds to act on the report of the warrant.

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Jul 19, 2022 at 06:37:32

That, by itself, would not be a proper basis for a traffic stop. The county sticker being obscured could be a reason for a stop.

Lyndsey Reply

Posted Aug 02, 2022 at 05:20:05

My 18yr old son and 2 friends were coming home from shooting guns which are all legal and had paperwork with them in the car. They went through a road block and found out that the car which I just received from a friend that died the tag was regestered to another car. The title and bill of sale were in the car but had not yet been transferred because we were waiting on death certificate. When cops asked if weapons were in the car my son said yes and paperwork. None of the boys have any criminal history and all had ids. The boys were handcuffed and they searched without consent entire car and trunk. They did find ecstasy tabs in trunk in a bag with a lock and all were arrested for that and the guns. No citations because of car situation just those two. Was search without warrant or consent legal?

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Aug 02, 2022 at 06:34:09

I have serious questions about the legality of the trunk and locked container search from a Fourth Amendment standpoint. Presence of guns in the vehicle does not give probable cause in the absence of other evidence.

They certainly could have been told to get out of the vehicle and patted down while the status of the vehicle was determined.

Since the vehicle had the wrong tag, it could have been impounded and a limited inventory of the vehicle conducted.

Shauna Reply

Posted Apr 09, 2023 at 07:57:19

My sons Ex called in my sons tags and told the police it was a stolen car the police then jumped behind him in traffic and ran the tags and the car was in fact stolen but he claims he bought the car from Craigslist in another county. Is the tip by the ex considered probable cause? Can that county charge him with stolen property since the car is not from that county? It was reported stolen in another county? He said the other county is dropping the theft charges cause the car was returned is that possible?

Sean A. Black Reply

Posted Apr 28, 2023 at 09:04:46

The tip provided articulable suspicion for the officer to investigate by going to where the car was and checking the tag. The vehicle showing stolen gives probable cause for the stop and arrest. In the county where he was found, he could be charged with theft by receiving stolen property. If there is evidence to suggest that he stole the car in the other county, then he could be charged for that offense there. It is possible that the two jurisdictions would elect for him to be charged only once, and the theft by receiving is an easier case to prove than the actual taking.

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