Driving with an old dealer license plate? Here’s why cops are on the lookout for you

If you’re still driving with that old paper license plate — the one advertising a dealership in bright, bold letters — you’re flashing a loud signal to the police car behind you: Stop Me!

A California law that went into effect Jan. 1 mandates vehicles sold by dealerships be fitted with black-on-white, numbered paper placards. Temporary plates are valid for 90 days, meaning that the old, temporary dealer paper plates should have been off streets by the end of March.

But a lot of them aren’t, according to officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Fresno Police Department.

The new plates are printed on special paper with a registered number, a vehicle identification number and an expiration date. That information is in the DMV’s computer and available to police, parking and toll agencies. Other states, including Colorado, Florida and New Jersey also use the system.

Avoiding DMV and fees

So why are police still seeing the dealer plates?

For several reasons, according to Sgt. Mark Keeney of the Fresno department’s traffic unit. Some people have been using them for a long time to avoid paying their vehicle registration fees. Sometimes, especially in the Bay Area, he added, it allows the driver to sneak through a toll both, like the ones on the Bay Bridge, without receiving a ticket in the mail, something officials say costs an estimated $15 million a year.

Sometimes, the motive is more nefarious. Police sometimes find criminals put paper over a plate on a stolen car, or slap the cardboard on a vehicle before they use it a crime such as a robbery or drive-by shooting.

Keeney said the traffic unit does not track the number of dealer-plate stops officers make, but officers are always on the lookout for them.

“Certainly, it’s in the back of their minds,” he said.

CHP: That’s probable cause

Ditto for the CHP.

“That’s a PC (probable cause) for a stop,” CHP spokesman Victor Taylor said. “I see them all the time.”

Taylor said that officers aren’t writing a fix-it ticket when they catch someone with the dealer tags. They are writing citations.

The CHP, and most other police agencies, will tow a vehicle if the registration is expired by more than six months, so the costs to the scofflaw could be pricey, he added.

“Tow costs, penalties and assessments,” he said.

Is it possible that someone could have the old dealer tag on their car by mistake? Taylor didn’t think so.

“Oh, they know,” he said. “No dealership in this area is going to slap one of those on the car.

“They know.”

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