Editor’s Note: This originally was posted in June 2018 as NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #490. The information presented is still pertinent in 2021. If you would like to receive the NMA weekly one-topic newsletter every Sunday in your inbox, subscribe today!
A requirement of owning a vehicle, the lowly license plate has its place among the more tedious aspects of our driving existence. No one enjoys going on online or waiting at the DMV to purchase their yearly tags. But without them, we would be stopped and fined heavily. Car registration coupled with our faithful license plate indicates legal ownership in the state of our residence.
Some authorities would have you believe, however, that the license plate is not a personal identifier which is why they feel no constraints about roaming the streets with automated license plate readers to capture as much data as possible about vehicle movements. The Virginia Supreme Court though recently declared that even though a plate is on view to the world, there is a connection back to the car’s owner.
These three stories certainly illustrate that point.
An elderly Vero Beach, Florida woman survived the 2017 Hurricane Irma but her car did not. Unusable due to flooding, the car was declared totaled by the insurance company and promptly sold to an auto salvage. Unfortunately, the license plate was left on the car which somehow ended up in New Jersey.
Four months after her insurance company sold the vehicle, she received a $52 New Jersey road toll fine in the mail. After another four weeks, she received a nearly identical bill. Her family contacted the insurance company both times to ask them to work out the problem since they were responsible for selling the totaled car in the first place. Lesson here: Remove any personal identifiers from a car before it is sold or if it has been totaled in a natural disaster or accident.
Two years ago, Rosenberg, Texas motorist Bobby Lynn donated his Ford truck to the non-profit Texas Cars for Kids. In April 2018, he received a notice from a collection agency stating that he owed $82.50 for three tolls and fees for this same truck he no longer owned. Lynn made a photo request to the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) and was shocked to learn his old truck was being towed and facing backwards in the photo. The HCTRA license plate readers caught his plate number from the front of his truck.
Lynn thought this would be an easy fix but has struggled since to find a solution between the Toll Road Authority and the collection agency that originally sent him a bill. He said in a statement, “It should be easier to prove yourself innocent.” HCTRA recommends that anytime you sell or donate a vehicle, take the license plate(s) off and remove toll road transponders and tags like EZ Pass.
The third story concerns a Houston TV news producer named Cynthia Capers who received a toll violation notice from the HCTRA that stated her car went through three toll plazas on a specific date and time in September 2017. Capers claimed that she never took toll roads and did not even possess an EZ Tag. Also, on the stated dates and times of the tolls, her SUV was at the dealership for repair work. She promptly contacted the service manager who paid the tolls within 24 hours and informed her that the employee who had driven her car had already been fired.
In looking at the repair service invoice however, she noticed that the dealership had not documented any miles put on her car while it was in their custody for nearly a month. Capers now recommends that car owners should always write down the mileage before and after taking the car in for repairs just to understand how far the car had been driven without you and then if you feel there is a discrepancy you can question the service manager about the reasons your car was driven.
The license plate is indeed a personal identifier and it’s important to know your rights with regards to your license plate if your car is totaled, sold, donated to charity or even just sits at your local repair shop.
DMV.org has an article entitled Surrendering License Plates: When to Hand over Your Tags that you might find useful. Also here is a link to the AAA driving laws that outlines what to do with plate transfer by state.