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Justices: License plates can't be in rear windows

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Justice Robert Rucker says his four Indiana Supreme Court colleagues have issued a ruling that transforms millions of law-abiding residents into traffic offenders.

The four-justice majority on Thursday decided that state law makes it illegal to display temporary license plates in a vehicle's rear window, and that those paper or cardboard plates must comply with the same statute governing permanent metal plates. That holding came in Kerry L. Meredith v. State of Indiana, 89S04-0808-CR-430, and was echoed in the shorter companion case of Jeffrey Young v. State, 49S02-0905-CR-252.

"A drive down nearly any Indiana street on any given day will reveal Hoosier motorists applying old-fashioned common sense: attaching temporary paper tags to the inside of the back window in order protect them from deterioration by the elements," Justice Rucker wrote in Meredith. "By today's decision the majority has transformed law-abiding citizens into traffic offenders. This is patently wrong in my view; therefore I dissent."

The Wayne Circuit case involves a cocaine possession case where Kerry Meredith was pulled over in 2005 in Richmond. An officer stopped behind Meredith's vehicle at a red light and couldn't spot a license plate in the usual location or anywhere else on the car. After activating his spotlight, the officer saw a paper plate in the rear window but couldn't see an expiration date because of tinted windows. He initiated a stop and saw the tag was valid, but when talking to Meredith the officer sensed excessively nervous behavior, noticed Meredith's bloodshot eyes, and what smelled like alcohol. A breath test came up negative, but Meredith consented to a vehicle search that led to police finding cocaine inside.

Before and during trial, Meredith moved unsuccessfully to suppress the evidence and a jury returned a guilty verdict. Meredith argued the initial stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal searches and seizures, and the Indiana Court of Appeals last year reversed his conviction, finding the officer should have walked away once he saw the temporary tag was valid.

That exact legal issue arose in Jeffrey Young's case out of Marion Superior Court, which involved similar circumstances of police finding cocaine after a traffic stop in 2007. The appellate court had also reversed that conviction, and justices granted both cases for review.

Writing for the majority in both cases, Justice Brent Dickson concluded that statutory requirements for the illumination and mounting of license plates on the rear of a vehicle apply to all plates, whether permanent or temporary. Meredith's case delved into the display and illumination of plates before a vehicle is permanently registered and involves other statutory provisions, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles having authority to issue rules about requirements for proper display of temporary tags. But the court ruled the statute doesn't differentiate between the various types.

"Placing a license on the inside of the back window clearly does not satisfy the requirement that license plates be displayed upon the rear of the vehicle," Justice Dickson wrote, citing Merritt v. State, 829 N.E.2d 472 (Ind. 2005). "Likewise, the defendant's license plate was not illuminated by a separate white light so that it was clearly legible from fifty feet. Officer Lackey was therefore justified in stopping the defendant."

The court also ruled that Meredith wasn't in custody, even if the officer felt the man "wasn't free to go," and so no warning was necessary.

Justice Rucker disagreed on the traffic stop aspect, finding that the General Assembly had given the BMV power to regulate temporary license plate displays but the agency didn't issue any guidance.

"But this is not because the bureau necessarily intends that the rules for permanent license plates should apply," he wrote. "If that were so, then the bureau would have no reason to require ninety-day plates to be 'displayed in the same manner as a standard license plate.' Unlike temporary plates that are made of paper or cardboard... ninety-day plates are 'manufactured from the same material as a license plate issued under IC 9-18-2. By creating a rule for one type of plate, the bureau has left open the issue for other temporary plates."

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