Police in Montana can lawfully stop a vehicle if the license plates are covered with snow, according to a Feb. 12 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court. The ruling came on an appeal by a man who was cited in Bozeman for DUI, an obstructed plate and no insurance on Jan. 12, 2011.
Mark Haldane was driving a Ford Explorer he had purchased two days earlier when he was stopped by police at a red light in Bozeman. The officer who was driving was training another officer in the passenger seat. She noted that the rear license plate was obscured by a trailer hitch and snow and decided to investigate.
On foot, the two officers could see the temporary plate issued by a car dealership, and the plate checked out OK on the patrol car computer. But when asked if he had been drinking, Haldane allegedly said yes, about two or three beers. He then failed a field sobriety test.
Haldane was sentenced to six months in jail with all but three days suspended and a $935 fine. The judge later doubled the suspended sentence to one year so Haldane, who cited financial difficulties, could make $100 per month payments on the fine. The obstructed plate and no insurance charges were dropped.
Haldane appealed his sentence to Gallatin County District Court and then to the Montana Supreme Court.
The high court rejected Haldane’s Fourth Amendment appeal that a snow-covered plate is insufficient reason for a traffic stop. The court noted that Montana law requires plates be “conspicuously displayed” and “not obstructed from plain view,” and that was sufficient to justify a traffic stop.
The high court also rejected Haldane’s appeal based on ineffective counsel, but it ordered Haldane be resentenced because doubling his sentence to one year - the maximum - to accommodate his indigency violated Haldane’s due process rights.