When Police Officers “Run Your License Plate” – Stops from Mobile Data Terminals

Man being pulled over by police

Police officers regularly run license plate checks – also known as “running your license plate” – for many reasons including to see if a vehicle is stolen, to find out more information about a vehicle or its driver after a stop, or to determine the ownership of the vehicle if it is abandoned.

In fact, officers have the right to check license plates randomly while on routine patrol for no specific reason whatsoever. In order to perform a vehicle license plate or registration check, police officers use special laptop computers called a mobile data terminal to discover information about people and motor vehicles quickly. Subsequently, these checks often lead to other evidence of criminal activity – including whether a vehicle is currently owned by a driver on the revoked or suspended driving list.

Mobile data terminals can provide detailed information about active arrest warrants, records from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, and alerts in the National Crime Information Center. Law enforcement consider mobile data terminals an invaluable crime-fighting tool for police agencies in New Jersey.

Are Random License Plate Checks Legal?

As a driver, you may be wondering if it is legal for a police officer to run your license plate if you have not done anything wrong or suspicious. In New York v. Class, the United States Supreme Court essentially held that people have no expectation of privacy in their license plate numbers, which are displayed for ease of view both day and night. Therefore, police officers do not need to act reasonably to select a license plate to research in a mobile data terminal – they can act based on suspicion or even randomly.

Limits on License Plate Checks and Information

There are limits on how a police officer can conduct a license plate check, however. First, in State v. Segars, the New Jersey Supreme Court made it clear that a police officer cannot run a license plate check for racial or ethnic reasons, meaning an officer cannot run your plates just because you are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, or any other race. If you feel you have been targeted for a license plate check for a prohibited reason, it is extremely important to obtain an experienced attorney, because the defendant bears the burden of showing that a check was made with discriminatory intent.

Second, in the case of State v. Donis, the New Jersey Supreme Court established that a license plate check can only reveal basic information, such as the registration status of the vehicle and the license status of the owner of the vehicle – no other personal information can be revealed based on an initial search. If the officer then finds that the vehicle is unregistered, stolen, or otherwise prohibited from being on the roadway, then he or she may access personal information of the owner. The officer may also access personal information if the owner is unlicensed or on the revoked list.

How You can Be Charged for a Crime Based on a License Plate Check

If you are a driver on the suspended or revoked license list, it is important to recognize that a mobile data terminal will report that the license plate of a vehicle belongs to a driver on the revoked list or who is unlicensed. In State v. Donis, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that this information, paired with information that the driver of the vehicle matched the owner of the vehicle, gives a police officer reasonable suspicion to pull a vehicle over and conduct further investigation.

Therefore, even if you are being completely careful, obeying every driving law, and performing no suspicious actions, you can still be pulled over if you have any vehicle restrictions associated with your license plate. This could lead to you being charged with driving with a revoked license, or to the police officer discovering that you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The consequences of driving with a suspended license as well as drunk driving are very serious and can include fines, further loss of driving privileges, and even jail time.

New Jersey Drunk Driving Attorney Edward M. Janzekovich Can Explain and Fight for Your Rights

If you or someone you know is pulled over based on a license plate check and you are charged with a crime, it is extremely important to contact an experienced DUI / DWI attorney who can explain what consequences you are facing in your specific situation. If you go to court, an experienced lawyer can help argue on your behalf to get you the best result possible and can make all the difference. To speak with an experienced New Jersey DWI / DUI lawyer about your situation, call us at 732-257-1137 or contact us online today. We serve clients throughout the state of New Jersey.