In United States v. Lopez-Estrada (No. 10-3327) the Tenth Circuit effectively held that an improvised repair to a license plate, however secure, provides probable cause to stop a vehicle. In this case the plaintiff was driving a pickup truck with a license plate attached by one screw and one wire loop. (See illustration below from the opinion).
A Highway Patrol Trooper stopped the pickup on suspicion that (among other things) it violated a statute which required that a license plate "at all times be securely fastened to the vehicle to which it is assigned so as to prevent the plate from swinging.” A consensual search resulting in the Trooper locating meth in a toolbox followed.
Note that the Trooper never actually saw the license plate swinging (even though the vehicle was driving on the Interstate), he just suspected that it might. And that, held the Tenth Circuit, was good enough. “[I]t was certainly reasonable for the trooper to think that a jury-rigged job of affixing a license plate might leave it poorly fastened and cause it to swing in violation of Kansas law.” The problem with this is that if the legislature intended to require a license plate to be screwed to a vehicle, it would have said so. Using the language “secularly fastened . . . so as to prevent the plate from swinging” appears intended to provide some leeway in the manner of the fastening. But the Tenth Circuit held that any “jury-rigged” fastening constituted a potential violation, and a basis to stop a vehicle. And because one of the major uses of such a law is its use to justify a vehicle stop, the court effectively required screws.
As a side note, dusting off old law school memories, doesn’t this sort of a law raise potential commerce clause issues (sort of like laws requiring special mud flaps in one State) if it is interpreted in such a fashion?