The License Plate Game

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The school year ends this week so it is just about time for another Denning family road trip. Despite the minivan with bucket seats, the DVD player, and multiple portable electronic devices, my kids are terrible travelers. So this summer I think we’ll go old school and try the license plate game. My kids are sticklers for rules (they take after their father) so we’ve got to decide whether license plates mounted on the front count. That caused me to wonder why people have such plates in the first place and whether it is lawful to place them on the front of a vehicle registered in North Carolina.

If you grew up in the Southeast like me, you may think (as I once did) that the spot on the front of your car for a license-sized plate is just for displaying your school pride, an advertisement from the dealership where you purchased your car, or a plate from another state that you frankly think is a lot cooler than the one you currently live in. As it turns out, however, most states actually require that vehicles display two license plates—one on the front of a vehicle, and another on the back. According to this 2012 study by researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, only 19 states (including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida) require that vehicles display only a rear license plate.

The backstory.  North Carolina once required front and back plates, but the General Assembly amended G.S. 20-63 in 1951 to permit the DMV Commissioner to issue only one registration plate for each motor vehicle if he or she determined that there was “an actual or threatened shortage of metal.” S.L. 1951, c. 102. Eventually, G.S. 20-63 was amended to simply require, regardless of the availability of metal, that only one registration plate be issued and that the plate be attached to the rear of the motor vehicle. See G.S. 20-63(d) (generally requiring that plates be attached to the rear, but providing for front placement for truck-tractors and certain other vehicles).

Some contend the two-plate system is better. The Texas study concluded that front plates were easier than rear plates to read in the daytime because of the sun glare on rear plates and that the presence of front plates makes it easier to collect tolls and parking fees because it results in more readable photographs. The study also noted that the presence of two plates provides better opportunities to identify vehicles, which can be particularly useful when combined with automatic license plate reader technology. This technology (which Jeff discussed here) can assess hundreds of plates per hour and automatically alert officers to plates that are stolen or that belong to individuals suspected of criminal activity. According to the study, two-plate detractors cite the expense of issuing two plates, the potential increase in fraudulent registration as people split a pair of plates between two cars—one registered and one not—and “the negative effect on the aesthetics on the front of the vehicle.”

So is it a violation?  G.S. 20-111(2) makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor to willfully display an expired registration plate.  Does this apply to expired out-of-state plates displayed on the front of a vehicle?  I doubt it.  While one could argue that the presence of such a plate might mislead a law enforcement officer about the registration of the vehicle, any such misunderstanding could be readily corrected by examining the rear of the vehicle. Plus, it turns out that law enforcement officers may not rely all that much on their visual observation of license plate numbers anyway. See Texas A&M Transportation Institute report at 12-13 (stating that officers often use other factors as a means of identification before focusing on the plate).

Rules of the game.  Presuming they’re legal, and for purposes of the summer road trip, do front license plates count?

16 comments on “The License Plate Game

  1. The North Carolina I grew up in called them TAGS. In fact i have a “First In Freedom” tag in my garage. Stop being a lankee lover

  2. NC would consider any plate on the front as a “vanity plate,” therefore it would not have any restrictions.

  3. If you’re in NC it don’t count but if you’re in a state that requires 2 plates then yes they should count!

  4. I personally prefer the two plate system. It’s easier to identify a vehicle coming and going. As a police officer years ago I use the plate reader on my police unit. It would generally alert more quickly on vehicle front plates due to the angle at which I had the sensor set, for instance, on approaching traffic and/or parked vehicles across the street. Vehicles should use only one, or set of, plate(s) for the state in which the vehicle is registered. Vehicle owners should also refrain from displaying license plates from foreign countries. Military servicemen and women are famous for doing so. Once the 30 days are up, remove the plate. Display them in your garage, or wherever you want. Just don’t display them on
    your motor vehicle.

  5. As far as the game goes: front plates count.

    Front plates have always annoyed me though. They often ruin the aesthetic appeal of certain cars’ front fascias. And front plates are not illuminated, so they’re practically useless at night absent some external light source. And if they’re intended to be viewed by oncoming traffic, the onlooker doesn’t have long to write down the plate number or enter the plate number into a computer (i.e. police).

    In this era of budget cuts and austerity, you’d think more states would be eschewing the front plate to save money.

    • Mark: Interestingly enough, the Texas study reported that one of the perceived advantages of having a license plate on the front was that it provided some reflection to counteract the danger posed by drivers who forget to turn on their headlights at night.

  6. I like the Punch Buggy game better. Convertibles count two.

    But if you’re playing the license plate game front plates should count, particularly if travelling in a two-plate state. When in Rome…

    • Thanks, J.C. Towler, but punching is not good for family harmony. Just sayin’.

  7. For purposes of the game, I think you need to use the jurisdiction of the state you’re traveling in to determine if it counts or not. In NJ, where I’m from front plate counts, in NC… no go.

  8. I always heard that the main advantages to front plates were easier identification of cards parked in a parking lot, and a more reflective cross section for radar and laser speed measuring equipment. (An issue that is not all that important in NC given officers’ visual estimation of speed.)

  9. I’m a North Carokina Police Officer and have used this as a stop before showing that it is a fraudulent registration number plate the operator knows to be. It is a tag that is mr registered to that vehicle and is mounted to that vehicle. I haven’t had it as a reason to dismiss my stop and it is rare, but in a time that it is needed it has worked so far.

    • You could always break a tail light as you approach the car. Provided he has no camera on you. Or lie and say he was driving left of center.. If the vanity tag is not illegal, then you are abusing your authority.

  10. Interestingly, 20-63(g) requires the plate to be in a horizontal, upright position. I’ve seen them in diagonal and vertical positions in the past (usually someone ‘souping up’ their vehicle).

  11. I HAVE LIVED IN SEVERAL STATES WHO REQUIRED CARS TO BE IDENTIFIED FRONT AND REAR. SPEAKING AS AN INDIVIDUAL WHO IS THE VICTIM OF BULLYING BY NEIGHBORS, IT WOULD REALLY HELP ME (AND LAW ENFORCEMENT) IF THE PLATE NUMBER WAS ON THE FRONT OF THE CAR WHICH IS TRYING TO RUN ME DOWN, OR FIRING AN AUTOMATIC WEAPON NEAR MY HOME. THE REAR PLATE ONLY SYSTEM IS ONLY BENEFICIAL FOR THE OFFENDERS, AND DETRIMENTAL TO THE VICTIMS.

  12. […] From “The License Plate Game” by Shea Denning at North Carolina Criminal Law (June […]

  13. Yes, they apply. Many times you only get a glimpse of the car from the front. You have no way of knowing if it is registered to that vehicle or not. You often aren’t close enough or quick enough to see if it is expired.. So, for the game, yes! It counts

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