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One Weird Trick for Getting Away With Obscuring Your License Plate

New York state lawmakers increased penalties for toll scofflaws, but also explicitly gave cops the power to cut them loose.

A license plate on the back of an SUV that is being obscured by a piece of plastic.

In 2022, cyclist Adam White saw this obscured plate in Brooklyn, pulled over to fix it, and promptly found himself in jail. (Courtesy Adam White)

Over the weekend, the New York state legislature passed a budget that included increased penalties for drivers who obstruct their license plates to avoid paying tolls. The measure came as a relief to the MTA, which will rely even more on license plate readers to generate $1 billion in revenue from congestion pricing, and to New Yorkers who are sick of people driving like assholes with impunity

But the new law also contains a head-scratching loophole that acts as an invitation for law enforcement to excuse the behavior, especially when they encounter one of the most prolific abusers of license plate obstruction: other members of law enforcement.

The budget language (scroll down to Subpart A) raises the minimum penalties for using license plate covers or other obstructions (fake leaves, business cards, duct tape, you name it) from $50 to $100, and increases the maximum penalty from $300 to $500. The police will now be able to confiscate license plate covers, and drivers who are convicted of the offense three times in five years will have their registration suspended for 90 days, which still seems pretty generous for motorists who are repeatedly caught trying to cheat the system.

However, some drivers who obscure their plates may leave the scene without a summons at all. Here's the relevant language, emphasis ours:

If the vehicle is being driven or operated in violation of subparagraph (ii), (ii-a) or (iii) of paragraph (b) of subdivision one of section four hundred two of this article, such officer shall issue a summons, provided, however, that a summons shall not be issued if, in the discretion and at the request of such officer, the defect is corrected in the presence of such officer. The refusal of a police officer to permit the repair of any defect in their presence shall not be reviewable, and shall not be a defense to any violation charged in a summons issued pursuant to the provisions of this section.

In other words, if a cop catches a driver with a blatantly blocked license plate, they can let them go if they fix the plate right then and there. A Gothamist reporter saw this happen on the FDR Drive in 2022, when a state trooper pulled over a white van that had a surgical mask covering the license plate. It turns out the driver was an "undercover" cop, albeit one wearing a vest that said "POLICE." 

"One of the allegedly undercover officers hopped out of the van. He wore a heavy vest with the words 'POLICE' written in bold white letters. He ripped the mask off the license plate, got in his van, waved to a reporter and drove away," Gothamist reported.

No ticket was issued.

Given that police officers are already empowered to use their discretion, why encourage them to do it in the letter of the law?

Governor Hochul's office told Hell Gate that the language was crafted to match the law prohibiting drivers from having "defective equipment," and to ensure that genuine mistakes aren't punished unfairly. But the difference between driving around with a broken taillight and driving around with your license plate covered should be pretty obvious—the first scenario does not involve deceiving the government to avoid paying a toll. And surely the tens of thousands of New Yorkers physically arrested for fare evasion on subways and buses this year would have appreciated an explicit nod to police discretion in the law that governs their actions.

We asked representatives from the State Assembly and the State Senate how this language made it into the bill, but have not yet received a response. In an emailed statement, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan sidestepped questions about whether this language undermines their efforts to stop toll scofflaws: "The MTA has been aggressively enforcing against toll evasion and will continue, to the maximum extent allowable by law, to protect New Yorkers against those who would seek to take advantage of them by avoiding paying their fair share."

The MTA and the City's Department of Transportation both lose hundreds of millions of dollars in lost toll and speed camera revenue every year to drivers who obscure their plates, and the drivers of these cars regularly cause crashes and maim or kill New Yorkers. (The penalty for committing one method of plate defacement that seems to be favored by many drivers parked in this reporter's local precinct—scratching the hell out of the license plate itself so it's not fully readable—was unaffected by the recent budget bill, and the fine remains a laughably low $25.) 

An unmarked police car with a bent plate outside the 7th Precinct (Hell Gate)

Toll scofflaws started to capture more public attention after attorney Adam White was arrested for "criminal mischief" for removing a piece of plastic obscuring an SUV license plate in November of 2022. Then Streetsblog editor Gersh Kuntzman went on a crusade to expose drivers who block or deface their license plates, a mission that has been documented in the New York Times, Curbed, the New Yorker, "The Daily Show," "Inside Edition," and most recently, "This American Life." 

Kuntzman's salient finding, after fixing roughly 250 of these plates in the last year and a half? 

"The majority have been people in law enforcement—court officers, firefighters, cops, DAs, federal officials," Kuntzman told "This American Life" host Ira Glass. Indeed, the biggest chunk of car commuters into Lower Manhattan's congestion pricing zone are—you guessed it—law enforcement officers. Anyone who has walked by a New York City police precinct, including employees of the U.S. Department of Justice and the New York City Department of Investigation, can tell you that the police do not care about following traffic laws. Both entities have recently criticized the police department for flouting parking rules. 

"Public corruption and fraud shouldn't be allowed to interfere with toll collection or traffic safety enforcement. This language suggests that lawless drivers may get a free pass and properly display their plates only when prompted by an officer," Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director for the Riders Alliance, wrote Hell Gate in a text. "By making police discretion so explicit, the text seems to invite the sort of arbitrary favoritism that sows government distrust, including, or maybe even especially, among people who benefit from it."

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