STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Obstructed license plates are costing the city and state millions of dollars in lost revenue, but how much could they cost New Yorkers who are caught in the act?
For years, motorists have been devising different ways to avoid receiving tickets from the city’s automated enforcement cameras and paying tolls on bridges, often bending their license plates or covering them in a plastic coating or artificial spray rendering them unreadable.
How much New Yorkers are fined for obstructing their license plates varies depending on the situation, according to New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.
Section 402 (1) (b) (i) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) states that, “Number plates shall be kept clean and in a condition so as to be easily readable and shall not be covered by glass or any plastic material.”
A violation of this section of the law is punishable by a fine of no less than $25, but no more than $200.
However, the fine could be higher in certain situations — like if the plate is being intentionally obstructed in an effort to avoid tickets and tolls.
Section 402 (1) (b) (ii) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) states that, “Number plates shall not be knowingly covered or coated with any artificial or synthetic material or substance that conceals or obscures such number plates or that distorts a recorded or photographic image of such number plates.”
Section 402 (1) (b) (iii) of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) states that, “The view of such number plates shall not be obstructed by any part of the vehicle or by anything carried thereon, except for a receiver-transmitter issued by a publicly owned tolling facility in connection with electronic toll collection when such receiver-transmitter is affixed to the exterior of a vehicle in accordance with mounting instructions provided by the tolling facility.”
A violation of these sections of the law is punishable by a fine of no less than $50, but no more than $300.
NYC & MTA LOSING OUT ON REVENUE
Both New York City and the MTA have lost out on millions of dollars in revenue from unpaid tickets and tolls due to obstructed license plates.
Last month, a new report from THE CITY found that New York City has lost out on roughly $75 million in automated enforcement revenue over the past two years due to obstructed or improper license plates.
Though the Department of Transportation (DOT) does not publicly disclose instances in which city cameras are unable to read the license plate of a vehicle recorded for an automated enforcement violation, a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by THE CITY shed new light on the issue that has only grown worse in recent years.
The data obtained by THE CITY shows that from January 2016 to March 2020, roughly 1% of monthly automated enforcement infractions featured an unreadable plate — meaning the vehicle in question could not be ticketed for the offense.
However, the percentage of unreadable images has since skyrocketed, with nearly 4% of images featuring an unreadable plate in December 2021, the last month for which THE CITY had received full data.
Since March 2020, there have been approximately 1.5 million instances in which speed or red light camera tickets were evaded through the use of obstructed or improper plates, costing the city up to $75 million in lost revenue, with each automated enforcement violation carrying a fine of $50, according to the report.
“Drivers using illegal license plates to evade accountability make our city more dangerous, while taking away revenue from life-saving street improvements,” Danny Harris, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told THE CITY.
The reported uptick in automated enforcement evasion comes at a time when the NYPD is ticketing far fewer motorists for obstructed or improper/missing plates than had been the case in years past.
During the first three months of 2022, the NYPD has issued a total of 1,280 citywide plate-related violations, down roughly 71% from the 4,355 such violations issued in the first quarter of 2021, according to NYPD data.
On Staten Island, the NYPD only issued 29 violations for plate-related violations during the first three months of the year, down roughly 84% from the 180 such violations issued over the same timespan in 2021, data shows.
Meanwhile, in October, the MTA announced that since the agency transitioned to a cashless tolling system in 2017, MTA officers have issued over 31,000 summonses to motorists with covered or obstructed license plates.
In addition to the 31,000-plus summonses that have been issued since the start of cashless tolling, the MTA has also impounded over 5,000 vehicles due to motorists repeatedly refusing to pay their tolls despite prior summonses.
“Our law enforcement personnel are trained to look for motorists who have repeatedly failed to pay their tolls, and are equipped with specialized license plate readers that can instantly identify those motorists,” said Daniel F. DeCrescenzo Jr., president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels.