Legality of a Traffic Stop for Having a Covered License Plate in Maryland

What is the law on license plate covers in Maryland?
Maryland, like all states, has an interest in having all vehicles on the road have license plates clearly visible and legible. If a license plate number is covered, obscured, blocked, or altered this is a problem for tag readers (at toll booths, for instance) and causes a problem if that vehicle is involved in a hit and run or other crime and no one can properly identify the vehicle.

For that reason Maryland has a law for “failure to maintain legible registration plate free from covers.” This law is codified in Transportation Article § 13-411(c)(1) and states that plates must be “maintained free from foreign materials, including registration plate covers as defined in § 13-411.1 of this subtitle, and in a condition to be clearly legible.”

What exactly does that prohibit?
What type of covers are forbidden by this law? T.A. § 13-411.1 defines registration plate covers as any “tinted, colored, painted, marked, clear, or illuminated object” that covers the characters of the registration plate or causes the characters to be distorted in an image taken of the tag. This obviously forbids any cover that goes directly over the license plate, including one that is plastic, clear, and see through. Under the law these are even illegal to sell in Maryland.

But what about license plate covers/frames that only go around the border of the registration plate? A lot of car dealerships leave these on the back plates as free advertising for the dealership and these can be purchased from any college or university gift shop promoting the school. Are these also illegal? The statute is unfortunately not clear, but I do not believe that the statute intended to apply to these frames. If the frame covers up the month or year of the registration in the upper right or left corner then that would be a problem. If it covered up the name of the state at the top, I would argue that as long as it is evident what state the plate is then there is also no problem and that is an illegal traffic stop. Likewise if the frame only covered up some text at the bottom of the license plate I would argue that also is not prohibited in the statute.

What should I do if I’m charged with a traffic citation or criminal offense because of a stop for failure to maintain legible plate free from covers?
Definitely consult with an attorney as soon as possible! Do not just accept a criminal charge or traffic citation for this just because you were charged. Because there is no clear-cut case law on this issue, this often must be fought and argued in court at a suppression motion or motion to dismiss. I have won traffic and drug cases for my clients where there was an initial stop by the police based on the allegation that the license plate was unlawfully covered. If this type of thing has happened to you or a relative or loved one, call our office today to speak with attorney Chris Peretti at 301-875-3472. Our office has the experience and knows how to beat these cases in court.

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