License Plate Laws

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What specific license plate laws should I be aware of?

The main requirements for automobile license plates are that they should be currently valid and clearly visible. They should be mounted to the car in the proper place (the bumpers) in a manner that is free of obstruction. All of the numbers and letters should be clearly visible, as well as any other identifying markers. 
 
This means that you should periodically clean the plates so that they are free of debris, mud, or dirt. Some states have banned the plastic covers that are sold to protect the license plate, as they can cause a glare or reflection that could be dangerous for other drivers. 
 
The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) allows customized or personalized license plates, which are usually accompanied by a yearly fee. However, the DMV discourages drivers from making adjustments or modifications to license plates, such as filing them down or cutting the edges so that they are smaller.

Do all states require both front and rear license plates?

No, 30 states require both front and rear license plates, while the remaining 20 only require rear license plates. Automobile manufacturers are prohibited by law from distributing cars with only one license plate in states that require both. 
 
The 20 states that require only the rear license plate are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island*, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia. (*Rhode Island accepts either rear or both license plates).
 
Therefore if your state requires both front and rear plates, you should make sure that both are displayed and your registration is current.

What is the penalty for a license plate violation?

Violations can occur if the plates are improperly mounted or if the registration is expired. 
 
If you have violated license plate laws, it will usually result in a traffic ticket. Violations of license plate provisions are usually considered as “fix-it” tickets. This means that the driver will usually be let free without any fees, etc., on the condition that they fix the license plate in a timely manner. Fix-it citations usually mean that the person can complete their drive to their home, work, or a mechanic, though this may vary by state. 
 
Besides a traffic ticket, a violation of a license plate provision can sometimes be accompanied by a fine, usually from $100-$200. Repeat offenses can lead to more serious consequences such as increased fines or suspension of driving privileges.

When am I required to surrender my license plates?

In some instances the DMV may require the driver to surrender their license plates, which means that they will no longer be allowed to drive that particular automobile. This is usually the case when the driver cannot furnish proof of driver’s insurance for their car. 
 
If the DMV has requested that you surrender you license plates, you should do so without delay. This may involve removing any attachments used for mounting such as frames, screws, or other hardware. Failure to surrender license plates when requested to do so could result in a suspended driver’s license and revoked registration.   

Do I need an attorney for license plate issues?

If you have a dispute over the license plate requirements, you should contact an attorney immediately. Having proper license plates is a condition for driving in all states, and violations can result in severe penalties. If you have a question regarding the proper placement or displaying of license plates, you should contact a lawyer or your local DMV to determine your state’s requirements.   

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Last Modified: 08-31-2010 04:27 PM PDT

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