Drivers who obscure their license plates cheated the MTA out of at least $144 million in tolls last year. Nine traffic fatalities in 2021 involved drivers with illegal plates, and the driver of one of these "ghost cars" killed a 67-year-old woman and critically injured an 8-year-old boy this past June while evading police.
So when cyclist and attorney Adam White spotted an SUV in Brooklyn with a piece of plastic obscuring the back plate on his way to work last Friday, he felt good about pulling over and peeling it off. "I do think it's a very important issue," White told Hell Gate. "Drivers need to be held accountable."
White says his decision earned him a misdemeanor charge and five hours in a jail cell, while the driver drove away without a summons. "It happened so fast," White said.
According to White, the car with the obscured plate was parked on the stretch of 4th Avenue between Union and Bergen Streets. The back plate had a piece of plastic blatantly blocking one of the license plate's digits, while the front plate was the big, blocky kind that makes the letters harder to see at an angle. The windows were deeply tinted, which prevented White from seeing that the driver was still in the car as he peeled the piece of plastic off the back plate.
"The guy in the driver's seat jumps out, comes out really fast, starts yelling at me: 'I'm gonna call the cops!'" White recalled. "Great, I said, call the cops!"
White waited for police to arrive, and when they did, he explained the situation.
"I told them that I'm an attorney and a safe streets advocate, and that what these guys do is cover the plates to evade red light and speed light cameras and evade accountability," White said. "There's no damage to this guy's plate. Besides, what he's doing is illegal and very dangerous."
Officers informed White he was under arrest, and charged him with 4th degree criminal mischief for allegedly damaging the driver's license plate. After they handcuffed him, White asked one of them to lock up the Citi Bike he had been riding.
"They were very calm and very polite. They said 'Well, you shouldn't do that. You should call 911 or 311.' And I replied that I've called 311 many times, and you guys have never issued a summons." (A recent Streetsblog investigation showed that many 311 complaints to the police involving illegally parked cars or dangerous driving go ignored and swiftly closed out. The City's Department of Investigation is apparently looking into it.)
In the back of the squad car, White asked his arresting officers if they had at least cited the driver for having an illegally blocked plate. No, they replied, because they hadn't observed anything amiss.
"I said what do you mean you didn't observe it? I showed you the picture on my phone and the driver had the piece of plastic in his hand!" White recounted.
Hell Gate asked the NYPD why White was arrested and detained, whether the driver was given a summons, and whether they considered a citizen removing an illegal obstruction from a license plate "criminal mischief," which entails "recklessly damaging property over $250," but we only received a short narrative of the arrest in response.
"Upon arrival officers were informed by a 44-year-old male victim that a 58-year-old male damaged his property on his vehicle," the NYPD wrote.
Over the first six months of 2022 the police department issued more than 13,000 summonses to cars with illegally obscured plates, a 33 percent increase over last year, and the Adams administration has promised to crack down more, but apparently not in this particular case.
According to a public records search, the car that White spotted has racked up 26 traffic violations in three years, including six speeding tickets, the most recent coming in 2020. (White tweeted about this same vehicle back in August, and noted at the time that it sported a parking placard issued to City workers.)
White said he spent five hours in a jail cell in the 78th Precinct before he was released with a Desk Appearance Ticket. His court date is on December 1, and he intends to fight the charge.
"It's wrong, it's so wrong, to have the cops arrest a citizen for this," White said. "It emboldens this sort of illegal act. They're basically conspiring with drivers to obstruct their plates…It's basically saying it's perfectly fine. It makes my blood boil."
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[UPDATE 11/15/22 3:53 p.m.] Shahana Hanif, the Councilmember representing the Brooklyn neighborhood where White was arrested, has weighed in: