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Driving a Car With Fraudulent or Obscured Plates Is Already Illegal But the City Council Wants to Make It Double Illegal

"There appears to be an issue with enforcement."

The back of a car with a defaced NY license plate

Nothing anyone can do about this. (Hell Gate)

A stroll down virtually any New York City street will confirm what officials and advocates acknowledge: The past few years have seen an explosion in "ghost cars"—vehicles who either have had their license plates covered or defaced to avoid identification, or which are equipped with temporary paper plates, either fraudulent and forged or legally issued by sham dealerships in states like New Jersey and Texas with lax regulations

In each instance, the ghost cars represent a compound threat to New Yorkers. The drivers of ghost cars speed through school zones and stop lights with impunity, knowing that speed cameras won't be able to ticket them—in 2020, the driver of a ghost car sped through a red light and killed Isaiah Benloss, a recent high school graduate. The driver sped off and has never been identified. And ghost cars are able to make use of the public infrastructure supporting cars without having to pay the tolls that support mass transit.

All of which raises the question: What, if anything, are the people whose job it is to keep our streets safe doing about it?

City Council members discussed two bills today, both sponsored by Bronx Councilmember Oswald Feliz. One would make it illegal to drive a motor vehicle with a fraudulent or expired plate, with civil fines of $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses. The other would make it illegal to sell or distribute fraudulent plates, with a $1,000 fine for the first offense and a $2,000 for subsequent offenses.

That seems like pretty common-sense legislation! If passed, these bills would join other extremely reasonable laws already on the books that make it illegal to obscure or deface your license plate. But the existence of sensible laws do not appear to be sufficient on their own to dissuade people who avoid speed cameras and automated tolls by making their license plates unreadable. In August of last year, seven percent of license plates triggered by speed, red light, and bus lane cameras were obscured.

If there are laws on the books, and the number of people flouting them is growing, one might conclude that something is lacking in the deterrent value of enforcement. Not so, Chief Michael Pilecki of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau, told councilmembers. The NYPD is on the case.

Pilecki pointed to Mayor Adams's convening of a "license plate working group" bringing together city and state agencies to discuss the problem. (A few months after Adams announced the working group and a crackdown on ghost cars, a director of his Community Affairs Unit was caught driving a vehicle equipped with license-obscuring devices.)

"Last year we issued 258,000 summonses to vehicles with covered or obstructed plates, arrested nearly 4200 drivers for forged or altered plates, and seized 7,520 cars that had fraudulent paper plates or were parked illegally illegally while displaying a temporary paper plate," Pilecki said. "So far this year, we've already issued over 130,000 summonses to vehicles with covered or obstructed plates, arrested 1,777 drivers for forged or altered plates, and towed over 1,100 vehicles this year for obstructed or covered plates."

The NYPD's instructions to its traffic agents, who write parking tickets, are clear, Pilecki said: "When they come across a vehicle that has a covered license plate, it's illegal to park that car on a New York City street. So regardless of whether that vehicle is committing any other type of violation, we want them to summons that vehicle and tow it for that violation."

Because fake and temporary out-of-state plates render a vehicle immune to most kinds of enforcement, the NYPD regards towing as "the only effective countermeasure," Pilecki said. Nevertheless, the NYPD only towed 351 such vehicles last year, fewer than one a day. This year, it's up to six a day.

Josh Benson, Deputy Commissioner of traffic operations for the Department of Transportation, told councilmembers that evasion of tolls and speed cameras with obscured plates is "in the five percent range," in recent months. Asked how much lost revenue that five percent represents, Benson declined to cite a figure, arguing that in some instances represented by that five percent figure, vehicles with obscured or fraudulent plates might, upon review, be found to have operating their vehicle lawfully after all, and therefore not owe the city a ticket. A report by the CITY calculated that City taxpayers could be out as much as $75 million in unassigned tickets since the beginning of the pandemic. And that's just the City. Streetsblog reported last year that toll scofflaws are costing the MTA as much as $144 million a year.

Pilecki suggested that one problem limiting the NYPD's inability to address obscured or fraudulent plates is a lack of space to stash all the vehicles they might tow. The NYPD gave up its Manhattan tow pound on Pier 76 to the Hudson River Park last year, leaving lots in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. "What we need is larger tow pounds," he said. 

Queens City Councilmember Bob Holden was unimpressed by the current legislation because it leaves the penalty for an obscured plate at a $65 fine. "Tolls can be $65!" Holden said. "You could use that in one day and make it back. Even if you do get caught, it's $65."

Eric McClure, the executive director of StreetsPAC, agreed. "A $65 fine is clearly not deterring anyone," he told the council. 

After a brief interlude from a commenter who revealed himself to be an Instagram troll, singing the counsel an improvised song that relied heavily on the premise that homosexuality is funny, the last word came from Jason Froimowitz, a Manhattan resident who wondered whether piling on even more laws requiring people to follow existing laws isn't missing the core of the problem:

"There appears to be a issue with enforcement," Froimowitz said, "rather than of existing laws and penalties."

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