Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County No. 10CF864 Honorable Robert L. Freitag, Judge Presiding.
JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Pope and Holder White concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 In September 2010, a McLean County grand jury indicted defendant, Jose Gaytan, for unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver (720 ILCS 550/5(d) (West 2010)) and unlawful possession of cannabis (720 ILCS 550/4(d) (West 2010)). Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, arguing the police officers did not have articulable suspicion a crime had been committed or was being committed when they stopped defendant for an obstructed license plate. In October 2011, the trial court held a stipulated bench trial and found defendant guilty. The court sentenced defendant to 30 months' probation, including a condition that he serve 120 days in the county jail.
¶ 2 On appeal, defendant argues the trial court improperly denied the motion to suppress evidence. Defendant asserts section 3-413(b) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (Vehicle Code) (625 ILCS 5/3-413(b) (West 2010)) only prohibits materials physically attached to the registration plate itself and not obstructions, such as a trailer hitch, not attached to the registration plate. We agree and reverse.
¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 4 In September 2010, a McLean County grand jury indicted defendant for unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver (720 ILCS 550/5(d) (West 2010)) and unlawful possession of cannabis (720 ILCS 550/4(d) (West 2010)). These charges resulted from a traffic stop and a search of the vehicle in which defendant was a passenger.
¶ 5 In November 2010, defendant filed a motion "to quash arrest and suppress evidence" arguing the traffic stop resulting in his arrest was improper. (We note the proper title for such a motion is "motion to suppress evidence." See People v. Hansen, 2012 IL App (4th) 110603, ¶¶ 61-63, 968 N.E.2d 164.) In January 2011, the trial court held a hearing on the motion. Officers Karl Ladtkow and Dan Crowley of the Chenoa police department were running stationary radar detection on Interstate 55. Ladtkow's attention was drawn to a purple Lincoln Mark V because of "the color of the vehicle and the big tires on the vehicle." As the vehicle passed, Ladtkow observed "the vehicle had a trailer hitch on the back and there was a ball on the back that obscured the license plate" and the trailer hitch "was covering up the bottom of the plate." Ladtkow testified the hitch was covering some of the numbers on the plate and the plate was obstructed when he was following behind the vehicle. On cross-examination, Ladtkow explained he was not able to see all of the numbers on the plate "unless I got right up on to the bumper of the vehicle and be able to look over that and see, you know, what number that was." Ladtkow admitted once he stopped the vehicle and walked up to it, he was able to clearly see the license plate despite the trailer hitch.
¶ 6 Defendant submitted into evidence a photograph of the Lincoln taken from an angle directly behind the vehicle and from a height approximately above the rear bumper. The trial court observed "the ball hitch in the photograph is not obstructing any of the numbers" but "the photo is also obviously taken by someone who is standing right at the rear of the vehicle, and certainly the officer testified that he was further back and that the angle, therefore, was different and the ball was obstructing one of the numbers." The court denied defendant's motion to suppress because the hitch obstructed the license plate.
¶ 7 In April 2011, defendant filed a motion to reopen evidence to permit introduction of a video recording of the traffic stop. By written order, the trial court granted defendant's motion to reopen evidence and permitted introduction of the video recording.
¶ 8 In July 2011, the trial court held a hearing on defendant's motion to reconsider. Defendant argued the statute "impl[ies] a cover, something attached to the plate." A tow hitch "is something that's not on the plate. It's in front of it as you're going down the road, " but if the plate is covered by that particular angle, "all you had to do is just move over a little bit to the left or the right and the letter is clearly discernible." In making its ruling, the trial court explained the videotape "really doesn't clear up for me one way or the other whether this thing blocked part of the letters or not. It does appear that maybe it blocks a little piece of one of them on the video, but I can't tell if it really does or it's just grainy from the video itself." The court denied the motion to reconsider.
¶ 9 In October 2011, the trial court held a stipulated bench trial and found defendant guilty of unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver. The court sentenced defendant as stated.
¶ 10 This appeal followed.
¶ 11 II. ANALYSIS
¶ 12 Defendant argues the trial court improperly denied the motion to suppress evidence. Defendant asserts (1) based on its statutory language and the doctrine of ejusdemgeneris, section 3-413(b) of the Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/3-413(b) (West 2010)) only "prohibits materials which physically obscure the registration plate itself and is not so expansive as to include legal use of trailer hitches and other similar vehicle accessories"; (2) the statute does not extend the requirement that the registration plate be "clearly visible" to momentary obstructions, such as properly installed trailer hitches; and (3) the police officers had no reason to believe a crime had been committed "by having a standard-issue trailer hitch which made it difficult to view the registration plate from certain ...