Have you noticed an increase in the amount of drivers using obscured license plates on their cars? We sure have. More and more people are trying to skirt the law — and avoid photo radar cameras — by making it hard to read their plates or removing them completely.
For obvious reasons, these are illegal. Oregon Revised Statute states clearly that, “A person commits the offense of illegal alteration or illegal display of a registration plate if… the plate has been altered, modified, covered or obscured in any manner… so as to render them unreadable.”
Speed and traffic signal photo radar cameras must be able to read a license plate to issue a citation. But getting caught obscuring your license plate is a Class B traffic violation in Oregon, and it will typically run you a lot less than a speeding ticket – that is, if you face any punishment at all.
It’s easy to find online tutorials for DIY tinted license plate screens (I won’t aid and abet this practice by linking to any of them, but they’re out there), and without more consequences, people aren’t going to suddenly stop doing this — especially as the City of Portland installs more speed and red light cameras.
Obstructed license plates do more than help people evade the authorities. If a car driver is involved in a hit-and-run, road rage incident, or other type of dangerous and/or illegal interaction with another road user, it’s nearly impossible to recall their license plate information if it’s obstructed.
Chris Thomas, an attorney at Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost (a BikePortland advertiser) who specializes in traffic law, shared photos on Twitter (at right) of obscured plates he’s come across recently and several people replied with even more examples.
In some ways, similar to untraceable ghost guns, these are ghost cars — practically invisible to law enforcement.
So, what can we do?
Putting more cops on the road might feel like the right response, but that’s complicated and fraught. Even if the Portland Police Bureau prioritized these type of infractions (which they don’t), traffic stops by armed individuals with militaristic training can result in serious trauma and harm, especially for people of color and other marginalized groups.
Some advocates think it would make more sense if Portland Bureau of Transportation parking enforcement officers handled this.
“I don’t see any reason why this would be something that would need to be done by armed police officers,” Chris Thomas told me. “It seems like a pretty binary thing. They’ve either got plates that are unobscured or they don’t. That’s why I think the parking enforcement officers solution is appealing, because these are people who are going around looking at cars parked in the street already.”
Thomas also pointed out that while citing obscured plates is currently outside the authority of parking enforcement as per City Code, unarmed parking enforcement officers can already issue citations for expired tags and missing plates. It reasons their jurisdiction could be expanded to include this.
Amending this code would make it possible to issue fines to people who obscure their plates under the parking enforcement umbrella, it would prevent direct police interactions, and would increase the effectiveness of our photo radar cameras. Portland Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is a big proponent on using non-police tactics to address transportation issues. She used traffic calming to reduce gun violence and dangerous driving in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood earlier this year and successfully passed a bill in the recent legislative session to remove police oversight from the traffic camera citation process.
What do you think? Have you noticed more covered license plates recently, and do you have any other ideas about how to combat this problem? If you know someone who has their plates hidden, I’d be curious to know their rationale for doing so. And you should probably tell them why it’s such a bad idea.
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at email@example.com