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Missing license plate leads to traffic stop and drug conviction

If you are a Wisconsin resident with a car registered here, you will be issued a license plate for the front and back of your vehicle and the law requires that you display both of them. Not every state has this same requirement.

But a recent ruling by a Wisconsin appeals court says that if you are a visiting driver from another state that does issue two plates, both need to be on display. Why is this important? Because in one incident, a missing license plate on an out-of-state vehicle led to a traffic stop which led to charges of drug possession with intent to deliver.

An Illinois man was pulled over while driving in Wisconsin because he was not displaying his front license plate. During the traffic stop, police discovered marijuana in his vehicle. Because the traffic stop was for the missing plate, the marijuana was apparently plainly visible or law enforcement was otherwise able establish probable cause to search the vehicle.

The defendant pleaded no contest to the charges but then filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence when he appealed the case. He argued that out-of-state drivers do not need to display both plates when in Wisconsin. Therefore, he said, the officer did not have probable cause for the traffic stop.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed. The chief appeals court judge first referenced the state statute which says: "Whenever 2 registration plates are issued for a vehicle, one plate shall be attached to the front and one to the rear of the vehicle."

The judge went on to clarify: "That means that if any state issues two plates, the corresponding automobile must display two plates to drive legally in Wisconsin."

Probable cause can be a tricky issue, and drug crimes cases can hinge on something as seemingly insignificant as a traffic stop for a missing license plate. That's why it is important for anyone facing criminal charges to speak with a qualified defense attorney who can examine their case from every angle in order to determine their legal options and make sure their rights are protected.

Source: State Bar of Wisconsin, "Police stop for missing license plate upheld, drug charge sticks," Joe Forward, Feb. 3, 2012

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