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State v. Pena

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

May 9, 2018

The State of Florida, Appellant,
v.
Marcelo Pena, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          An Appeal from the Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Lower Tribunal No. 15-18797 Diane Ward, Judge.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, and Christina L. Dominguez, Assistant Attorney General, for appellant.

          Gonzalez & Herrera, P.A., and Manuel F. Herrera, Jr. and Dennis Gonzalez, Jr., for appellee.

          Before ROTHENBERG, C.J., and SALTER and LUCK, JJ.

          LUCK, J.

         For license plates in Florida in 2015, "all letters, numerals, printing, writing, and other identification marks upon the plates regarding the word 'Florida, ' the registration decal, and the alphanumeric designation shall be clear and distinct and free from defacement, mutilation, grease, and other obscuring matter, so that they will be plainly visible and legible at all times 100 feet from the rear or front." § 316.605(1), Fla. Stat. (2015). The trial court found that the stop of defendant Marcelo Pena's car based on the tag-obstruction statute was illegal, and suppressed his confession and the search of his car following the stop. We disagree that the stop was illegal, and reverse, because the undisputed evidence was that Pena's tag had a frame that obscured the word "Florida" at the top of this plate, violating the clear language of section 316.605(1).

         Factual Background and Procedural History

         The facts, found by the trial court, are not in dispute:

The State presented testimony from Officer Carl Sanabria of the Miami-Dade Police Department. The officer testified that he was working crime suppression in the Hammocks area in plain clothes in an unmarked police vehicle when he observed the Defendant's vehicle in traffic. The Defendant was not the subject of an investigation at that time. The officer observed that the rear license plate on the Defendant's car had a metal frame which obscured the words "MyFlorida.com" from the top portion of the license plate and "Sunshine State" from the bottom portion. A photograph of the license plate was introduced into evidence by the State which showed a frame that is not unlike many frames used by Florida drivers and provided by auto dealers. Officer Sanabria acknowledged that this frame did not obscure the identification number or decal number on the license plate and was clearly visible at 100 feet. Believing that this frame constituted a violation of Florida law, he stopped the Defendant and issued him a citation. He further testified that he smelled the order of marijuana from the car as he approached it, however no marijuana was ever found. Upon learning that the Defendant's license was suspended, he arrested the Defendant for driving while license suspended, in violation of § 322.34(2), Florida Statutes. Officer Sanabria testified that he searched the Defendant's car incident to his arrest and because he smelled marijuana. He discovered a plastic bag containing alprazolam pills. The Defendant was charged with Possession with Intent to Sell, Manufacture or Deliver a Controlled Substance, in violation of § 893.13(1)(A)(1), Florida Statutes.

         Pena moved to suppress the statements he made, and the evidence found in his car, following the traffic stop because the stop based on the tag-obstruction statute was illegal.

         The trial court agreed that the traffic stop was illegal, and granted Pena's suppression motion. The trial court concluded it was bound by the holding of State v. St. Jean, 697 So.2d 956 (Fla. 5th DCA 1997), which the trial court described this way: "where a county name on a license plate was obscured by a license plate frame, this was not sufficient to show that the defendant had committed a traffic violation, and thus the police did not have a reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant's car and evidence seized pursuant to that stop was suppressed." The trial court analogized the obscured county name in St. Jean to the obscured "MyFlorida.com" and "Sunshine State" in this case, and found that "St. Jean specifically held that under circumstances presented in this case the police did not have a reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle." Because St. Jean had not been overruled by the Florida Supreme Court, "and in the absence of interdistrict conflict, " the trial court concluded it was bound by the district court's decision in St. Jean.

         The state appeals the trial court's order granting Pena's suppression motion. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.140(c)(1)(B) ("The state may appeal an order . . . suppressing before trial confessions, admissions, or evidence obtained by search and seizure . . . .")

         Standard ...


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