The NYPD is ticketing drivers for fake or mutilated license plates at an accelerating clip — highlighting a growing safety scourge, even as the pandemic slows overall enforcement of moving violations, department data shows.
Tickets for missing, improper, obstructed or unregistered license plates through August 2021 are up 45% from the same period in 2019, before COVID brought the city to a near-halt.
Arrests are up too, the stats reveal — with 2,163 busts for suspected fraudulent temporary license plate cases in the first seven months of 2021 compared with 1,134 arrests in 2020 and 1,178 in 2019, according to numbers provided by the NYPD.
Paper license plates are favored by drivers seeking to elude law enforcement, according to police, as well as those trying to evade tolls and speed-enforcement cameras. Police have tied fake plates to dozens of shootings in the city.
This spring, the NYPD’s Auto Crime Unit disseminated a guide to patrol officers, instructing them how to spot the phony tags and sideline vehicles and drivers. Driving a vehicle with a fake plate is a penal violation that could result in jail time.
The flimsy paper plates first became a widespread sight on city streets after COVID shut down Department of Motor Vehicle offices and left many drivers stuck with temporary permits for extended periods. That gave cover to drivers who purchased phony license plates, many of which resemble temporary tags from Texas, New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
Law enforcement sources say police officials are in regular contact with counterparts in those states to share information and enforcement strategies.
The FBI is also involved: In May, the Department of Justice secured fraud and conspiracy indictments against three individuals who allegedly used fake car Texas dealerships to sell nearly 600,000 paper tags on the internet to buyers across the country.
City drivers have learned to become wary. “I have seen many cars on the road having paper plates. These are Pennsylvania, Jersey or Texas. They can drive as fast as they want because no one can catch them,” Ganesh Thapa, a Queens resident who drives for Uber, told THE CITY.
“Sometimes I let them go ahead of me when I am driving. They always seem in a hurry,” Thapa said, in Hindi.
Towed in The Bronx
One sign alerting police that many fake-plate vehicles are potentially tied to crime: Hundreds get abandoned once towed to the NYPD impound yards.
Of the 3,803 vehicles with suspected fake temporary plates that were towed through July 31 of this year, 797 went unclaimed. These vehicles will likely be sold at a police auction, according to the NYPD.
Roughly 60% of the towed vehicles were picked up in The Bronx, the numbers show.
The NYPD also issues tickets that carry fines. Through August this year, it handed out more than 21,700 moving violations involving improper, obstructed, missing or unregistered license plates, a 45% jump from the same period in 2019 –– even as the number of moving violation tickets for all offenses fell by half in the same period.
License plate-related violations made up 6.5% of the 334,822 summonses issued by the enforcement agencies in the first eight months in 2021, compared to 3.7% in 2020 and 2.1% in 2019, according to THE CITY’s analysis of NYPD summons data.
Fake paper license plates proved an obstacle to criminal investigations during the height of the pandemic last year. Police say they struggled to make arrests in drive-by shootings as forged license plates reduced the value of video evidence.
Vehicles with phony plates evade detection and avoid registration fees, insurance liabilities, emission testing, traffic camera enforcement and toll charges.
“If they’re driving around with fake plates, they probably think that they are immune to any responsibility for what they do and probably are engaging in bad behavior as a result of speeding and reckless driving,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesperson for the American Automobile Association Northeast.
The vehicles disappear from the official radar — while posing a pressing safety threat.
Tied to Shootings
The untagged vehicles were involved in about three dozen shootings, 60 other incidents in which shots were fired and more than 550 crashes that injured 293 people in the first half of this year, said NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison during a June news conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Dermot Shea.
Overall, 1,271 shootings have been reported this year, according to the NYPD’s CompStat system.
Calling fake-plate links to shootings “alarming”, Harrison said, “I think I’m lowballing the numbers. I think those numbers are a lot higher,” –– while pointing the blame at people who took advantage of the pandemic shutdown of Department of Motor Vehicles offices.
Between June 16 and July 25, the police made more than 1,600 arrests involving vehicles with suspected fake temporary plates, according to the NYPD. (The department said more recent numbers were not “readily available.”)
Street safety groups and police reform activists alike have sought to call attention to the risk of racial bias in police stops tied to moving violation enforcement. In April, de Blasio signed a law that, starting next April, will require the NYPD to regularly publish statistics on the race of drivers it stops.
In an interview last year, Juan Martinez, a senior advisor of the national advocacy group Vision Zero Network, said that frequent contacts between motorists and the traffic enforcers could result in targeting of Black drivers.
“A lot of these police departments don’t view their goal as deterring illegal and reckless driving, their objective is confiscating illegal guns, drugs, etc.” Martinez said. “And officers have biases about who is more likely to have illegal drugs or guns, which is why you see these racist outcomes.”
‘CHECK THE VIN!’
“Many vehicles used in violent crimes” in the city had temporary tags, according to an internal NYPD training manual created by its auto crimes unit, a team that investigates crimes related to auto theft, carjacking and document fraud.
This spring, the unit distributed the manual to patrol officers, guiding them on how to spot signs that can be used to legally justify stopping an individual and conducting a search based on “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity — such as exterior damage, obstructed plate and expiration date.
The training manual advises NYPD officers on how to identify a fake plate after stopping a vehicle, by cross-checking registration papers, a vehicle identification number (VIN), insurance papers and other records.
The manual zeroes in on plates purporting to be from Pennsylvania or Texas. The guide states that Texas has about 25,000 vehicle dealerships, including some that registered using phony Texas addresses on that state’s DMV website — and notes that these outnumber the total Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets in the entire country, combined.
“CHECK THE VIN, CHECK THE VIN, CHECK THE VIN!!” the manual urges – noting that a real license plate may be slapped onto a stolen vehicle.
Red flags indicating fake plates vary by state and type of license — and could include number sequencing, the style of a plate number, design or color. Even the font size may matter, or whether the state name is uppercase or lowercase.
The manual notes that it’s common for a single fake plate to be copied and slapped onto multiple vehicles. Officers may arrest drivers only if they have reason to believe the driver knew their plate was fake, the manual indicates. But the plate and vehicle can be seized regardless.
The booklet also acknowledges that many paper license plates are legitimate — and advises officers to handle stops with care. “Be aware the vehicle in front of you maybe be the legitimate one, so carefully conduct your investigation,” it reads.
The NYPD, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the MTA are also pursuing people who sell fake temporary license plates on e-commerce platforms.
In July, the Port Authority, operator of six interstate bridges and tunnels, sent a letter to eBay and Craigslist after its undercover officers bought fake license plates on the websites.
The letter asked the two e-commerce platforms to “strongly consider taking immediate action to prevent” the sale of fake tags, which can go for as much as $300.
“There are several hundred listings on each of these platforms fraudulently offering to sell temporary license tags and related items,” the letter said.
The operation led to the July arrest of a New Jersey resident who sold paper plates to the Port Authority officers and will be charged with the possession and sale of fake paper plates, the bi-state agency said in a statement.
The Port Authority Inspector General followed up to declare fake paper tags “a common recourse for criminals looking to mask their identities,” adding: “Current investigations of drug-traffickers, terrorists, gang members and organized theft rings have all seen a rise in the use of these fraudulent paper tags.”
Also concerned is the city Department of Transportation, responsible along with the NYPD for ensuring safety on local streets.
“Aside from the obvious criminality, fake plates present a serious threat to the public if there are dangerous or unlicensed drivers behind the wheel,” Scott Gastel, a DOT spokesperson, told THE CITY.
“We are working with our partners in law enforcement to rid city streets of those using these fraudulent plates to avoid penalties and to hold them accountable for their reckless behavior.”