Virginia Traffic Law: Poorly Applied Sticker Causes A Sticky Situation

As we’ve said in past posts, it sometimes feels like you can get pulled over for anything in Virginia. Now you can get pulled over for something you can’t get pulled over for.

In Diggs v. Commonwealth, Record No. 015-7-356 (Va. Ct. App. 2016) (unpublished), a driver was stopped shortly after he started driving on a street next to a repair shop. The car, an older model, had an inspection sticker on the front windshield that was peeling away. The officer knew that this was a high crime area and that a lot of small dealerships and repair shops in the area dealt in counterfeit inspection stickers. The officer pulled the driver over on suspicion of violating Virginia Code § 46.2-1173, which states:

No person shall make, issue, or knowingly use any imitation or counterfeit of an official safety inspection sticker. No person shall display or cause or permit to be displayed upon any vehicle any safety inspection sticker knowing it to be fictitious or issued for another vehicle.

Upon pulling the driver over, the officer smelled a strong scent of marijuana. The driver also admitted that his license was suspended. The officer arrested the driver for driving on a suspended license, did a pat-down, and found a bag of marijuana on the driver. The driver was later convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

The question on appeal was whether the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the driver was engaged in criminal activity based on the peeling sticker. If the officer did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion, then the stop was illegal and the evidence gained from the stop is inadmissible. At face value, the answer should be that there was not a reasonable, articulable suspicion. In Moore v. Commonwealth, 276 Va. 747 (2008), the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that there was no reasonable, articulable suspicion in a similar case. In Moore, an officer pulled over a vehicle after seeing that its inspection sticker was “bowed,” suspecting a violation of § 46.2-1173. Like in Diggs, the officer in Moore found marijuana in the car and the driver was convicted for possession of marijuana. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that an incompletely applied inspection sticker was not enough to justify the stop and threw out the conviction. So if the Virginia Supreme Court said that a sticker was not enough in Moore, then surely the conviction in Diggs would be thrown out as well. Right?

Wrong. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in Diggs. The Court of Appeals based their opinion on different facts of Diggs and Moore beyond the loose sticker. In Moore, the officer ran the vehicle’s license plate and knew it was a rental car before he pulled the driver over. This is important because Virginia Code § 46.2-1173 requires knowledge that the sticker is fake. Who is going to inquire into the legality of their rental car’s inspection sticker just because it’s not fully applied? In Diggs, the car did not belong to the driver, but the officer did not know that until after he pulled the car over. Also, in Moore the car was just driving down a street next to a grocery store. In Diggs, the car was pulling away from a repair shop the officer believed to be dealing in false inspection tags. The Court of Appeals ruled that these facts were sufficiently different for there to be a reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify the stop. Therefore the stop in Diggs was a legal stop and the conviction was upheld.

So even if there’s something suspicious about your car that isn’t enough to get you pulled over, it can be enough to get you pulled over depending on the circumstances. Either way, do yourself a favor and make sure your inspection stickers are on right.