Seemingly everybody in South Florida has a license-plate frame — adorned with logos of your car brand, auto dealer or favorite sports team.
They can get you in big-time trouble.
A Miami appeals court ruled Wednesday that a police officer acted legally when he pulled over a motorist whose frame partially covered the word "Florida" on his license plate, but not the tag numbers or decals. The driver, Marcelo Pena, was arrested for driving with a suspended license — and for the drugs the cop found in his car.
The Third District Court of Appeal was not naive to the abundance of the frames "frequently supplied by car dealers” and that “many otherwise law abiding citizens install them specifically to show allegiance to a club, fraternity, college or sports team or, as a means of other self-expression."
"But the Legislature gets to make the laws that govern our public roads and highways," Judge Robert Luck wrote in the opinion, "and it has done so clearly and unambiguously by prohibiting the obscuring of the word 'Florida' on state license plates."
Pena was pulled over in 2015 by a Miami-Dade police officer in West Kendall. Pena's SUV had a silver plate frame from Grand Prize Chevrolet, a car dealership now known as Bomnin Chevrolet.
The frame covered "MyFlorida.com" at the top of the familiar orange-adorned tag, and "Sunshine State" at the bottom. The tag number and registration remained visible.
Officer Carl Senabria soon realized Pena was driving with a suspended license, and also found a bag of alprazolam pills; he was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, and drug trafficking.
But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward ruled the traffic stop was illegal. relying on a another appellate-court ruling that said a frame obscuring a county name on a tag was not enough to be pulled over. Prosecutors appealed and the Miami appeals court dismissed Ward's decision, saying the actual word "Florida" must be clear.
The ruling likely won't spark a spike in traffic citations — Florida cops aren't generally aggressive about license plate frames unless the plate numbers themselves are clearly covered.
But law enforcement nevertheless is warning motorists.
"A lot of people don't know it's against the law," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Alejandro Camacho, a spokesman. "A good rule of thumb: No letters, numbers or decals on the tag can be covered, period."
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