By John Clark
This week, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the drunk driving conviction of a man who was initially pulled over by police because snow was covering his license plate, according to a report from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Sources say Mark Haldane was stopped by police in Bozeman, Montana, in January 2011 simply because the police were unable to read the entirety of Haldane’s license plate due to the accumulation of snow and the presence of a poorly placed trailer hitch.
The police were acting pursuant to a Montana state law that requires cars to have “license plates conspicuously displayed.” The law also notes that license plates in Montana “may not be obstructed from plain view.”
As a result, the police had a “particularized suspicion” to pull him over, which is the threshold police must meet before they seize someone’s vehicle by pulling it over.
Haldane challenged the validity of the stop because of the consequences that eventually ensued. After police pulled him over, they noticed that Haldane had “red, bloodshot eyes” and asked Haldane to take a field sobriety test.
Unfortunately for the driver, Haldane failed the field sobriety test and admitted to officers that he had consumed a few beers before getting behind the wheel.
At trial, Haldane was found guilty of a misdemeanor DUI, and was sentenced to a year in jail. The judge, however, suspended most of the sentence except for three days and ordered Haldane to pay a $935 fine.
While Haldane did not challenge the fact that he was drunk, he and his DUI attorney believed that challenging the validity of the stop would invalidate the DUI arrest.
The Montana Supreme Court, however, said that Haldane’s violation of the law prohibiting the concealment of license plates, even if such concealment is unintentional, gave the police enough suspicion to pull him over.
One judge, however, had noted in previous decisions that the simple fact of an obstructed license plate, standing alone, did not give police officers enough suspicion to stop a vehicle. But his judge apparently changed his mind during Haldane’s appeal.
Despite the loss on this count, Haldane did succeed in convincing the court that his inability to pay his fine promptly led to a longer jail sentence.
Sources say the justice told the Bozeman Municipal Court to revisit Haldane’s sentencing because its first decision violated the constitutional principle that “indigency or poverty not be used as the touchstone for imposing the maximum allowable punishment.”