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License Plate Issues

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James W Harwood
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The first step in beating a driving under the influence charge is not getting pulled over in the first place. Having been on "ride-alongs" with police officers, I know that they look for the slightest vehicle code violations as excuses to pull you over to see if you have been drinking. An officer can pull you over for any observed violation of the vehicle code, not matter how slight. His actual reason for pulling you over is irrelevant. One favorite with officers is any problems with your license plates.

In California, the law requires if you were issued two license plates, that you must display one on the front and one on the back. Of course, California sends two license plates for all cars registered in state. The exception is for motorcycles, which are only issued one license plate. Many drivers in California choose not to mount their front license plate for aesthetic reasons. In fact, many car dealers will sell you a car without a front plate bracket if you choose. If your car is registered in another state that does not issue two plates, an officer cannot pull you over just for that reason.

When you buy a new car it often comes with "paper plates" instead of actual license plates. Your metal plates eventually come in the mail. Proof of vehicle registration is usually taped to the front windshield. An officer cannot pull you over just to check if the paper taped to your windshield is valid. However, it is not required that the officer drive around your car to look for it. If he can't see the paper from the back of the vehicle for any reason he can pull you over. Bottom Line: Be extra careful when you have paper plates on your car, and put the metal ones on as soon as they come in the mail.

Another common pretext for pulling a car over is an obscured license plate. The standard for whether or not a license plate is obscured is extremely low. The characters must be displayed upright, and read from left to right. That means that sideways or upside-down plates will allow an officer to pull you over. Many custom "chopper" motorcycles mount their plates sideways. This practically guarantees that a bored cop will pull you over when you drive by him at 2:00am.

Objects in front of the license plate can also be considered "obstructions". One common thing used to claim that a plate is obstructed is a trailer hitch ball mounted on the bumper. If the ball blocks even one character on the plate, even if that character becomes visible by moving slightly, the officer can legally detain you and your car.

While many people like customizing their cars and motorcycles to fit their personalities, these customizations often provide officers with reason to pull you over. Carefully consider what alterations you make to your car and know any legal effects it will have. A clean looking front bumper may look cool, but it could also lead to being unnecessarily harassed by law enforcement, or even being investigated for DUI.

Category: General


2 Comments to "License Plate Issues"

If a car has "paper plates" from the dealer, and a temporary registration in the front windshield, an officer may pull the car over if he can't see the temporary registration. The officer need not drive around to the front of the car to look for the registration. However, if the officer can see the temporary registration, he may not pull the car over simply to check its validity.
Posted by Jim Harwood on July 19, 2013 at 05:32 PM
I recently got a dui...the officer said he pulled me over because of my paper plates...i had the registration in the window and he was in front of me and waved me down...is this illegal
Posted by Anonymous on July 19, 2013 at 04:08 PM

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