Yet another reason why African Americans can be pulled over by police


Superior Court panel rules all parts of license plate must be completely visible

Police officers in Pennsylvania could be justified in pulling you over simply because any—that’s right, any—part of the wording on your license plate is obstructed.

That includes small letters such as the “” website at the bottom of most Pennsylvania license plates, oftentimes obstructed by license plate frames.

The New Pittsburgh Courier has learned that a three-judge panel of the Pa. Superior Court ruled in favor of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in a 2021 case involving a Philadelphia police officer who pulled over a driver simply because the state tourism website was partially obstructed on the vehicle’s license plate. That police stop eventually resulted in a search of the passenger side of the vehicle, where a gun was found, and ammunition was found in the pocket of the passenger, Derrick Ruffin, a Black man. The panel made its ruling on Aug. 23, reversing a ruling made by the lower courts, which agreed with Ruffin’s appeal to suppress the incriminating evidence that was found by the officer. Ruffin argued that there was no basis for the vehicle stop because the officer could read the number on the registration plate, and there was no question as to which state had issued the plate.

The lower court granted Ruffin’s motion to suppress on the basis that there was “no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to pull over (the vehicle) because of the obscured website.”

But in the Superior Court panel’s ruling, obtained by the Courier, the panel referred to the letter of the state law on the matter, which reads that “it is unlawful to display on any vehicle a registration plate which (3) is otherwise illegible at a reasonable distance or is obscured in any manner.”

The state law has three additional notations on obscuring plates: (1) is so dirty as to prevent the reading of the numbers or letters thereon at a reasonable distance; (2) is obscured in any manner which inhibits the proper operation of an automated red light enforcement system in place…or any other automated enforcement system…; and (4) is obscured, covered or otherwise obstructed in a manner which inhibits the visibility of the issuing jurisdiction at a reasonable distance.

The Superior Court panel said that the suppression court “failed to give effect to the plain meaning of all the words of the statute.”

The panel added that the word “any” means “unmeasured or unlimited in amount, number or extent” or “to any extent or degree.”

Thus, the panel argued, dismissing the state tourism website of on a license plate as unnecessary to be visible “contradicts the broad language chosen by our legislature.”

The panel said that it appreciated Ruffin’s position that the state law should be limited to the elements of a registration plate that are actually pertinent to the identification of a vehicle’s registration. However, “we may not disregard the letter of the law ‘under the pretext of pursuing its spirit.’ Additionally, the obstruction of the URL for the Commonwealth’s tourism website on the registration plate of the vehicle in which Appellee (Ruffin) was riding as a passenger constituted a violation of the Vehicle Code and subjected the operator to a traffic stop for the purposes of enforcing the $25 fine.”

However, Ruffin, who was in the vehicle with four other occupants, didn’t just get a fine due to the traffic stop. He was eventually criminally charged with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, carrying a firearm without a license, carrying a firearm on public streets or public property in Philadelphia, and possession of marijuana.

Critics of the Superior Court panel’s ruling said it further puts African Americans at risk when they’re behind the wheel, as studies have consistently shown that Black drivers are pulled over by police at disproportionate rates. The way the Pa. state law is written now, an officer could hypothetically pull over a Black driver whose license plate frame is partially blocking the “” wording on the bottom of the plate, while letting a White driver with a similar license plate frame continue on their way.


Talk to many African Americans, and they will describe instances of being pulled over for seemingly minor reasons—the small light above the car’s license plate was not working; or the red brake light that is situated inside the rear window wasn’t working. Then of course there’s the infamous, vehicle  “matching the description” of a suspicious vehicle reported in the area. But being pulled over because the state tourism’s website of being obstructed might be a new one, even for Black people.

Andy Hoover, director of communications for ACLU Pennsylvania, told the news organization Spotlight PA that the decision was “another flimsy excuse for police to pull people over, and we’ve seen repeatedly how routine traffic stops can escalate into tragic outcomes, especially for Black and brown people.”

In Pittsburgh, the Courier reported in December 2021 that City Council voted nearly unanimously to forbid minor traffic stops by Pittsburgh Police officers. Reverend Ricky Burgess, a longtime councilman, introduced the legislation, after data found that in 2020, Blacks were pulled over more times in the city than Whites, although Whites severely outnumber Blacks in the city.

City officers can no longer pull people over for minor violations such as a taillight or headlight that’s not working, an expired registration stickers that’s fewer than two months expired, or a license plate that’s not properly mounted. Data wasn’t readily available to the Courier on whether or not traffic stops have been reduced in this calendar year, 2022.

“African Americans are three times more likely to be stopped by police than other brothers and sisters,” Rev. Burgess told KDKA-TV last year, “and that creates a chilling effect in the African American community.”







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