Police fine driver for Wounded Warrior Project license plate cover

'Overbroad' Florida law used to cite vet supporter


MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Robert Blades said he just wanted to help combat veterans who've made incredible sacrifices.

"Many of the veterans as far as I can see are forgotten," Blades said. "They did their part and somehow we have to pitch in to do ours."

When he supported the Wounded Warrior Project, they sent him a license plate frame to help spread the word, something he put on his car to bring more awareness to the issue and show the support to the soldiers who have returned home.

But his seeming good deed backfired on him when a Miami-Dade police officer gave him a citation for the alleged crime of having the plate frame on his car.

"I find it baffling beyond belief," Blades said.

It started with a trip to a nearby bank with his girlfriend at about 2:30 a.m. Blades works odd hours. He's a well-established salsa singer, a family business; his brother, Ruben Blades, has achieved stardom as both a musician and actor. After making a deposit they noticed a large number -- he estimates 50 -- of feral cats and he drove over to take a look. But then some police officers became curious about him.

"We had the windows rolled down and all the sudden I see a police car coming, his lights off, fast," Blades said. "He gets right behind us and he puts on his lights. He said, 'What are you doing here?' We said, 'We're looking at these cats.' Then he said in a harder tone, 'No really why are you looking here?'"

He said he had no problem with the stop, but then became a little concerned when the police officer didn’t return for about 20 minutes. When the officer who ticketed him, identified in court records as Juan C. Rodriguez, finally returned he told him he was giving him a ticket.

"He said, 'I couldn't read your license plate,’" Blades said.  "I said, ‘What? You couldn't my license plate?’ He said, ‘No, I couldn’t read it.' I said, ‘The license plate behind my car? You couldn’t read it?’ He said, ‘No."

Blades couldn't believe it, especially because he knows a majority of cars on the road have plate covers, or protectors as they are sometimes called, on them similar to the one on his car.

The license plate number on his car was completely visible as was the registration sticker. The state website was visible at the top of the plate, only the seemingly meaningless "Sunshine State" on the bottom was partially concealed by Wounded Warriors plate cover.

Similar plate frames are doled out by car dealerships, tag agencies, university boosters and sports teams. Blades pointed out that even a friend of his, who happens to be an officer with the same law enforcement agency that ticketed him, has one on his car.

"As I drive through Dade County, you look at car after car, they have a protector," Blades said. "You can a field day pulling people over if this is a legal violation."

On a strictly technical basis,  it can be construed as a legal violation.

The law under which Blades was cited, Florida Statute 320.061, make it illegal to obstruct "any feature or detail on the license plate."

 Attorney Nicholas Sanchez, of Estrella Ticket Defense in Miami, said the violations are rare but can be meted out at any given time.

"You have a lot of people that have no idea that at this moment they are driving on the streets and they are violating Florida statutes," he said.

It's also a law that can be abused and welcomes selective enforcement, said Sanchez, either as a pretext to pull over a driver or to summarily punish one.

"What's really overbroad on the statute I would say is the language that says any portion of the license plate," he said. "How much is too much?"

"Shouldn't the legislature define that?" asked Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman.

"They should, but they don't," Sanchez said. 

Miami-Dade Police Department spokesman Detective Dan Ferrin said the department has no policy regarding what specifically constitutes a license plate violation and that drivers cited for the violation can take the issue to court. 

"If not even law enforcement has a policy in terms of these kinds of tickets then nobody does," Sanchez said, calling it a "big problem."

But Sanchez also noted that Blades would almost surely be successful if he challenged it in court and statistics from the Florida Highway Patrol bear that out. In 2015, 681 such tickets were issued in Miami-Dade County (with 1,841 issued statewide) and of those 681 tickets, a whopping 510 of them were dismissed.

Blades said he is definitely taking it to the next step and may file a complaint against the officer.

"In my opinion, it's a frivolous ticket. It's an invented ticket,"  Blades said. "Who knows what his motivations are, but it's not in favor of the public."