Want to stop a car just because there’s a decorative frame around the license plate? Nope, gun and ammo suppressed!

Roosevelt Whitfield v. United States, No. 11-CF-1451 (decided September 18, 2014)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Blackburne-Rigsby, Senior Judge Nebeker. Opinion by Judge Blackburne-Rigsby. PDS for Appellant. Motions judges Anthony Epstein and Robert Morin.

Facts: Police stopped a car with Texas plates solely because a license plate frame obstructed the words “Lone Star State” at the bottom of the license plate. The license plate number and state name were legible and unobstructed. The driver of the car was Roosevelt Whitfield, a member of the U.S. Air Force who also worked as a bank security guard. During the traffic stop, an officer saw a firearm holster inside the car in plain view. Police asked whether Mr. Whitfield had any weapons, and when they thought he appeared nervous, they conducted a protective pat-down and again asked whether he had any weapons. Mr. Whitfield disclosed that he had a .38 caliber handgun in the car. Officers found the loaded firearm and extra ammunition and arrested Mr. Whitfield. The firearm was registered in Virginia, where Mr. Whitfield lived. Mr. Whitfield moved to suppress the gun and ammunition, arguing that the traffic stop was unlawful because his license plate complied with the relevant municipal regulations. After the motion was denied, he entered a conditional plea to attempted CPWL, possession of an unregistered firearm, and unlawful possession of ammunition.

Issue: Do the D.C. Municipal Regulations—specifically,18 DCMR §§ 422.5 and 422.6—make it unlawful to have a license plate frame that covers any part of the license plate, even where the plate’s identifying information is not obscured?

Holding: The municipal regulations do not impose a flat ban on all license plate frames, but rather prohibit only “those materials or attachments that obstruct the identifying information” on the license plate. Slip op. at 20 (emphasis original). The traffic stop was therefore illegal and the motion to suppress should have been granted.

Of Note:

  • The Court observed that the regulations appear to impose a flat prohibition against license plate frames if read literally, but after considering the rest of the regulatory context, as well as the legislative history and intent, it determined that the regulatory provisions were ambiguous. It therefore applied the rule of lenity to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the appellant.

  • In finding the regulations ambiguous, the Court placed great weight on the fact that a literal interpretation “would impact countless individuals who drive in the District of Columbia and who have license plate frames on their vehicles.” Slip op. at 31. See alsoid. at 3, 18-19.

  • Although the D.C. Council could choose to enact legislation imposing a blanket prohibition against all license plate frames, it would have to use precise language that clearly indicated such legislative intent. See Slip op. at 29-30 & n.22. MW