PA Supreme Court: Driving a Vehicle with an Expired Registration Sticker Is Not a ‘Breach of the Peace’
May a deputy sheriff conduct a traffic stop on the basis of an expired registration sticker, on the theory that such a violation amounts to a breach of the peace? In a case involving a driver who was convicted of DUI as a result of such a stop, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently said “no.”
Expired Registration Sticker
In Commonwealth v. Copenhaver, a deputy sheriff conducted a vehicle stop of a pickup truck after observing that the truck had an expired registration sticker. Upon approaching the truck, the deputy noticed an odor of alcohol and marijuana emanating from the passenger compartment. The deputy administered field sobriety tests to the driver and subsequently arrested him for suspected driving under the influence of alcohol and controlled substances. The driver ultimately was charged with DUI and other offenses.
The driver challenged the deputy’s authority to conduct the traffic stop and sought suppression of all evidence obtained during the encounter. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, relying on a line of Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases reinforcing that duly-trained sheriffs’ deputies ― that is deputies who have received the same training required of police officers ― have residual common law authority to enforce Pennsylvania’s Vehicle Code when they witness a violation that comprises a breach of the peace. The driver was convicted in a non-jury trial and sentenced to a term of partial confinement.
The driver appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, arguing that his suppression motion should have been granted because operating a vehicle with an expired registration sticker does not by itself constitute a breach of the peace.
The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, and the driver next appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sided with the driver, finding that:
For purposes of a deputy sheriff’s common law authority to enforce the Vehicle Code — a breach of the peace arises from an act or circumstance that causes harm to persons or property, or has a reasonable potential to cause such harm, or otherwise to provoke violence, danger, or disruption to public order.
Here, the high court reasoned:
In our view, operating a vehicle with an expired registration sticker does not fit within that description, as it is not a violent or dangerous action, nor is it likely to lead to public disorder. Indeed, to the contrary, a vehicle’s registration tag expires with the passage of time and, as such, the expiration is passive in nature (although there may be intentionality or knowledge with regard to the decision to drive with an expired registration). Driving a vehicle with such a sticker, moreover, does not tend to incite violence, disorder, public or private insecurity, or the like. That being the case, we conclude that driving a vehicle with an expired registration does not entail a breach of the peace.
Accordingly, the court reversed the driver’s conviction.
This case serves as yet another example of why, if you have been arrested for DUI, it is important to consult with a qualified DUI attorney as soon as possible to ensure that your legal rights are protected and that you exercise all available defenses.