Rule 1: Although certain portions of O.C.G.A. § 40-2-41 apply only to vehicles registered in Georgia, no license plate shall be covered with any material unless the material is colorless and transparent. In sum, the license plate is to be kept legible at all times.
Rule 2: Mere police questioning does not constitute a seizure, and even if police have no basis for suspecting that a person detained at a traffic stop is engaged in criminal activity unrelated to the stop, police may lawfully ask questions during the course of the stop about such unrelated activity, so long as the questioning does not prolong the stop beyond the time reasonably required to complete the purpose of the traffic stop.
A Georgia police officer observed that the South Carolina license plate of defedants’ vehicle was partially obscured. After the officer stopped the vehicle, he became suspicious that there might be contraband in the vehicle. Defendants were indicted for trafficking in cocaine based on evidence of cocaine seized from second defendant. The trial court suppressed the cocaine on grounds that the stop was invalid, rendering said evidence fruit of the poisonous tree. The State appealed from that order, while both the defendants cross-appealed, challenging the resulting search if the stop was found to be valid. The court reversed the order of suppression.
Issue 1: Did the Georgia police officer have legal basis to stop defendants’ vehicle, which had a South Carolina license plate, for a license plate violation?
Issue 2: Did the police officer illegally prolong the valid traffic stop for a license plate violation when he asked questions related to his hunch that there might be illegal drugs in defendants’ vehicle?
Answer 1: Yes.
Answer 2: No.
Conclusion 1: The traffic stop was valid based upon a license plate violation. The trial court erred in ruling that O.C.G.A. § 40-2-41, which provided that it shall be the duty of the operator of any vehicle to keep the license plate legible at all times, did not apply to the out-of-state license plate on defedants’ vehicle. Further, the trial court also erred by ruling that, even though the word “Carolina” on defendants’ license plate was not legible, there was no violation of the statute because the police officer testified he was able to recognize it as a South Carolina license plate. The statute plainly required that the license plate be kept “legible at all times” and it was not legible.
Conclusion 2: There was no basis for concluding that the police officer's questioning during the stop prolonged the stop beyond the time reasonably required for the purpose of the stop. Even though the officer asked for consent to search the vehicle immediately upon concluding the traffic stop, the request for consent to search, in and of itself, did not constitute a continued detention and questioning.