If you’ve ever had a police officer driving behind you, you may have slowed down and made sure to make complete stops, just in case the officer decides to pull you over.  In most cases, police will only pull you over if you commit a moving violation, but police have another tool they can use to perform a traffic stop: your license plate.  Police can typically run your license plate legally whenever they want to.  The Baltimore traffic ticket lawyer at the Law Offices of Randolph Rice explains why police can do this and when it can cause trouble for you.

When Can Police Run My License Plate?

Typically, police do not need any reason or justification to run your license plate.  “Running a place” means to put the license plate number into a system to check whom the car is registered to, what type of car the plate is supposed to belong to, and whether the vehicle’s registration is valid.  Police do not need a valid reason to run this check, since there is no expectation of privacy in your license plate number, so there is no need to justify this kind of search.  However, there are some really common reasons police might run your license plate:

Checking Registration

Police may pull up behind you and check your plate’s registration.  Especially if your license plate is missing a registration sticker, police might think your registration is expired, revoked, or invalid.  Running your plate can tell them that it’s valid, in which case they typically won’t bother you.  Alternatively, if it comes back expired or revoked, they may stop you and ticket you for driving with an expired or suspended registration or a suspended license.

Checking for Stolen Vehicles

Police might run your plate if the car you’re driving is close to the description of a known missing car or if something about the vehicle tips off a police officer that the car might be stolen (e.g., scratches around the window from jimmying the door open).  If you are driving a stolen vehicle, you could be stopped and investigated for auto theft.  If your car is not stolen, the license plate matches the car, and the vehicle is properly registered, the police will typically leave you alone.

Checking for Stolen Plates

Every license plate is registered to the car it is supposed to be on.  You cannot move a license plate from one car to another without changing the registration, which helps ensure that your plate number will always match the car and lead back to the driver.  This is vital in cases of hit and runs or other incidents where witnesses catch only the driver’s license plate number.  If a license plate is stolen and put on another car to cover up the car’s involvement in a crime – or simply to profit from a stolen license plate – it can lead to theft charges and other citations.  Police can run a plate to check for this.

Finding Cars Involved in Crime

As referenced, sometimes victims of crime and witnesses to criminal activity may spot a driver’s license plate number (or a partial plate number).  This can help lead police to find the responsible parties, so they may run license plates somewhat randomly to see if they match a reported crime in the area.  This is especially common if the body style, make, model, or color are close to the vehicle in a report.  If the police officer can piece together enough information to have a reasonable suspicion that the car was involved, they may be able to pull you over to ask questions.

Criminal Charges from Traffic Stops

In many cases, running someone’s license plate gives police enough evidence of a traffic offense or another offense to stop the driver and investigate further.  Police only need “reasonable suspicion” to perform a traffic stop under the rules of the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio (1968).  Once police have you stopped, they can investigate further.

Any evidence of a crime that a police officer collects during a traffic stop can be used against you.  This includes anything you say, any actions you take, anything they observe about you and your appearance, and any evidence they spot through your window or open door.  Many routine traffic stops for expired registrations can lead to DUI charges if police spot signs of intoxication, drug charges if police see or smell drugs in your car, or other charges if police find evidence of other crimes.  As long as the initial traffic stop was legal, any evidence they see in plain view can lead to valid charges.

During a traffic stop, it is important to be polite to police officers, but it is also vital to protect yourself from charges.  Many life-changing criminal charges stem from what starts as a routine traffic stop.  If you are pulled over, you have the right to say no to a police officer’s request to search your car, you have the right to refuse to answer questions you don’t want to answer, and you may ask if you are free to leave.  Knowing your rights can help prevent criminal charges from traffic stops.  However, if you are charged with a crime – or even given a traffic ticket – it is vital to talk to a criminal defense attorney for help understanding your charges and fighting the case against you, especially if jail time or high fines are on the line.

Call Our Baltimore Traffic Stop and Criminal Defense Lawyer for a Free Legal Consultation

If you or a loved one was pulled over for an expired registration or an issue with your license plate and it ended up leading to criminal charges, call a lawyer immediately.  The Law Offices of Randolph Rice’s Baltimore, MD criminal defense lawyers represent defendants in charges ranging from traffic offenses to serious crimes like DUI and drug possession.  For a free legal consultation on your case, call our law offices today at (410) 694-7291.