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DUI License Plates: 'Whiskey Plates' Shame Drivers

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By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 01, 2011 9:08 AM

DUI license plates, also known as whiskey plates, are an increasingly popular option for lawmakers seeking innovative ways to curb the DUI recidivism rate. They, however, give rise to a few constitutional questions.

For those who don't live in Ohio, Minnesota and now Washington, whiskey plates differ from standard license plates in that they contain some sort of marking that indicates that the car's owner has been convicted of a DUI. In Ohio, DUI license plates have red lettering, whereas in Minnesota they contain the letter W. Washington State, the new kid on the whiskey plate block, is proposing the use of the letter Z.

Critics of whiskey plates believe that they unnecessarily shame people, and prevent violators from moving on with their lives. They also believe that the plates invite police harassment, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Potential harassment should be at the center of the debate about whiskey plates. Constitutionally, a police officer can only stop a person if there is reasonable suspicion that they have committed or are committing a crime. For drivers, reasonable suspicion most often means some sort of vehicle or traffic violation, or erratic driving.

Arguably, DUI license plates encourage the police to stop impacted drivers more often--even without reasonable suspicion. A slight swerve to miss a pothole might be ignored for an ordinary driver, but for one with a whiskey plate, it may suddenly become suspicion of drunk driving. Even worse, an officer may point to the plate as reasonable suspicion unto itself, even though it doesn't convey the current state of the driver.

Even if whiskey plates accomplish their intended goals, their implementation is just begging for someone to initiate a constitutional lawsuit.

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