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Iowa Supreme Court Ruling Impacts License Plate Frames


In a decision that could affect how promotional license plates are perceived, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled last week that drivers whose cars display the frames can be stopped if they obscure the small print below the plate numbers.

The court ruled 5-2 last week that a 1984 law requiring drivers to "permit full view of all numerals and letters" on the plate also includes the county name that often appears below plate numbers and can be obscured by promotional license plate frames.

"While a person who sees a driver commit a crime may not be able to remember a complete license plate number, the person may be more easily able to recall the county name," Justice Thomas Waterman wrote. "This would narrow the search to identify the vehicle. The county name on a plate also shows whether a vehicle is registered locally or not, which may be relevant in identifying suspicious behavior."

In a dissenting view, Justice Brent Appel said that he fears the ruling could give police the right to pull over just about anybody who has a promotional license plate on their car. "The take-away point for Iowa citizens is that they better go out to the garage and check their license plate frames if they want to avoid being pulled over by law enforcement on the open road," Appel wrote. "For the thousands of Iowans who have a frame that promotes a sports team, or an auto dealer, beware. If the license plate frame happens to obscure the county name on the plate, the state will take the position that police may stop the vehicle anywhere and at any time."

Industry suppliers believe the ruling shouldn't put a dent into sales of license plate frames, as the ones they sell comply with these rules – and the new precedent in Iowa actually gives distributors another value-added service they can provide to clients.

"There are already various state laws governing what part of a license plate can be covered," said Carl Gerlach, marketing vice president of Gill Studios (asi/56950), which has license plate frames in its product line. "That is why most suppliers offer a number of license frame configurations with large and small panels for your team logo, civic organization, or car dealer. Suppliers also add a statement to their catalogs advising the buyers to check for state regulations before ordering. I don't believe this court ruling in Iowa will have an effect on the sales of license frames because people are passionate about their schools, churches and civic organizations. The knowledge of which frames qualify under state law is just another value-added service which distributors can bring to their customers."

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