During a recent traffic stop in Canton, a man told police he didn't need to have a driver's license or license plates. But what does the law say?

When Ron Wagner II was recently pulled over on a traffic stop in Canton, it turned out to be anything but routine.

After a trooper with the Ohio Highway Patrol asked the Perry Township man why he didn't have either a front or back license plate, the 45-year-old said he wasn't required to have them because he wasn't a commercial driver. The trooper said the motorist was clearly wrong.

Wagner refused to provide identification to the trooper, debating Ohio law and his Constitutional rights with authorities while noting he had a homemade back plate with adhesive letters and numbers as a courtesy for law enforcement.

Canton police were called for backup. After more than 20 minutes, Wagner still refused to provide identification, vehicle registration or step outside the vehicle. A police dog was used to apprehend Wagner, causing large wounds on one of his arms that required surgeries.

When reached by telephone earlier this week, Wagner cited a Virginia Supreme Court case that he contends backs his argument. He wound up being charged with misdemeanor counts of obstructing official business and resisting arrest.

So who's right? Wagner or the trooper? We asked law professors, the Ohio Highway Patrol and Canton law director to find out.

Are you required to have a driver's license when operating a vehicle on a public road in the state?

Yes

Lt. Robert G. Sellers, of the Ohio State Highway Patrol's public affairs division: "(State law) prohibits anyone from driving a motor vehicle upon a public road or highway unless the person has a valid driver's license.

"The Ohio Revised Code requires all drivers to display a driver's license or furnish satisfactory proof of license upon demand," the patrol said in an email response.

David A. Goldberger, professor emeritus of law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law: "So long as the laws are validly drafted ... the state has the power to require a valid driver's license and valid license plate for the car. I can't imagine Ohio laws in regards to driver's license and license plate requirement were drafted in an improper and sloppy way."

Martin H. Belsky, the former dean of the University of Akron's School of Law and the Randolph Baxter Professor of Law, addressed the nature of Wagner's stop, noting that "of course (law enforcement has) a right to know your name when you are driving with a fake license plate.

"Otherwise the cops have no way to check ... (and find out) if it's a stolen car (or) if there are drugs in the car (or) if there's an outstanding warrant," added Belsky, former chief criminal prosecutor for the city of Philadelphia who has served as chairman of the Ohio-Pennsylvania-Kentucky Anti-Defamation League.

Canton Law Director Kristen Bates Aylward said the letter and number combination on Wagner's makeshift back plate came back to another person who had a concealed gun permit. Belsky said that created a potential risk for law enforcement. When a driver doesn't provide identifying information, police do not know whether the person is "a drug carrier ... or (they) could be a terrorist," the law professor said.

Because Wagner didn't have license plates, police have the right to "demand his identity and proof of his identification; that is law — that's clear law in every state," Belsky said.

Are valid front and back license plates required on a vehicle when driving?

Yes. About 30 states require both plates; roughly 20 states require only a back plate.

A 2013 effort by two Ohio legislators to end the front plate requirement didn't become law. Reasons cited for the proposed legislation were to save the state an estimated $1.4 million a year and to avoid unsightly holes being drilled into the front of a vehicle to mount a plate bracket.

Bates Aylward said both state law and city ordinance require valid front and back license plates in order to drive a vehicle on public streets.

Asked if the requirement to have a driver's license when operating a vehicle is debatable, the law director said: "To me there is absolutely zero question; it's kind of like saying, 'Am I allowed to take a gun and rob a bank?' No. Why? Because there's a law that prevents it."

Does the Virginia Supreme Court case of Thompson v. Smith mean a driver doesn't need a license to operate a vehicle on public roads?

No

Goldberger, who teaches constitutional law and is the former legal and legislative director of the Illinois Division of the American Civil Liberties Union, noted it's a Virginia case before explaining the ruling decided "driving is a right; so there is a right to travel ... but it's subject to reasonable regulations.

"To say I don't have to carry a driver's license or to have my car properly marked is to say that those are not reasonable regulations in the interest of public safety and health," the legal scholar said. "And I don't think (there's) any court in the country that would reach that conclusion."

Another traffic issue that has been debated in some states is whether sobriety (OVI) checkpoints are constitutional.

According to the Ohio State Bar Association, "The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of sobriety checkpoints in Michigan v. Sitz, even though the law generally forbids law enforcement officers from stopping drivers unless there is a suspicion the drivers have violated the law. In the Michigan v. Sitz case, the court found the intrusion and inconvenience to individuals who are stopped is outweighed by the government’s interest in curbing drunk driving."

Sellers, of the Ohio Highway Patrol, said "the principal benefit of a sobriety checkpoint is its deterrent effect on impaired drivers."

He said drivers are required to stop for a checkpoint, citing state law for failure to comply with the order or signal of a police officer.

Sellers also cited ORC 2921.33 (B): "No person shall operate a motor vehicle so as willfully to elude or flee a police officer after receiving a visible or audible signal from a police officer to bring the person's motor vehicle to a stop."

Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 or
ed.balint@cantonrep.com
On Twitter: @ebalintREP