The Obscured License Plate and the Indigent DUI Defendant

Mark Haldane was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) at the conclusion of a jury trial in Bozeman Municipal Court. He appealed to the District Court for Gallatin County, which affirmed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress. Haldane then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court arguing that: 1) when he was stopped based on an obstruction to his temporary registration permit by snow and a trailer hitch, it was a violation of his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure; 2) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance; and 3) his sentence violated due process because it was based on his indigency.

In Montana, officers may initiate a traffic stop on any person or vehicle that is observed in circumstances that create a particularized suspicion that the person or occupant of the vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense. Section 61-3-301(1)(a), MCA, provides that “a person may not operate a motor vehicle … upon the public highways of Montana unless the motor vehicle … is properly registered and has the proper license plates conspicuously displayed on the motor vehicle.” Furthermore, § 61–3–301(1)(a), MCA, requires that the “license plate must be securely fastened to prevent it from swinging and may not be obstructed from plain view.” The statute defines “conspicuously displayed” as “obviously visible and firmly attached.”

Haldane argued that Montana’s weather and the prevalence of farm and other towing vehicles make it unlawful for law enforcement officers to effectuate a stop only because a temporary registration is obscured by snow and a ball hitch. He relied on concurrences by Justice Nelson in State v. Rutherford, 2009 MT 154, and State v. Cooper, 2010 MT 11. As Justice Nelson wrote in Cooper:

I continue to disagree with the proposition that, in this state, a license plate’s being obscured by the natural accumulation of the elements or driving conditions can constitute particularized suspicion for anything—except that Montanans often drive in foul weather and on foul roads.

However, the Supreme Court in this case rejected this analysis. Instead, it focused on case law establishing that a statutory violation alone is sufficient to establish particularized suspicion for an officer to make a traffic stop. And, the plain language of 61-3-301, MCA, requires that a license plate may not be obstructed from plain view and must be obviously visible. Under Montana law, a license plate obstructed by snow or a ball hitch is legally sufficient justification to authorize a traffic stop.

Haldane also argued that his sentence violated his due process rights because it was based on indigency. The State maintained that this argument had been waived because it wasn’t raised at the original sentencing, however the MT Supreme Court invoked the Lenihan exception which provides that an appellate court may review any sentence imposed in a criminal case if it is alleged that such sentence is illegal or exceeds statutory mandates, even if no objection is made at the time of sentencing.

In this case, the Court originally planned to sentence Haldane to six months with all but three days suspended. However, after it was revealed that Haldane was indigent and unable to make his payments, the Court increased his sentence to one year with all but three days suspended. Because his sentence was increased to the maximum sentence based on his inability to pay the fines and fees, it was a violation of due process.

State v. Haldane, 2013 MT 32

Call Now for a Free Case Review and Consultation
(406) 752-6373

or Click Here to Contact me Online