Vanity license plate covers being outlawed in NC

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- They can be used to promote one’s favorite sports team or political party and to simply dress up a boring-looking license plate.

But as of Dec. 1, certain registration-tag covers or frames will be illegal in North Carolina and subject a vehicle owner to a $100 penalty.

That’s because of a new law, one of several passed by the N.C. General Assembly which become effective in either December 2010 or January 2011.

Beginning in December, a vehicle owner whose license-plate cover or frame makes key information on the tag illegible will be breaking the law. This includes a numeral or letter on the plate, the state name or the number or month on the registration-renewal sticker.

And while some might see this new rule as an intrusion on personal expression, its intent is to ensure the security of law enforcement personnel.

Lt. Barry VanHoy of the Mount Airy Police Department pointed out Thursday that there are number of cases where patrol officers must readily identify or verify information about a car.

“That vehicle could be stolen,” VanHoy said of one example. Or a car could bear a fictitious license tag to allow a crime to be committed without a means of linking the vehicle to its proper owner. Thefts of plates are reported regularly in Mount Airy.

While a quick check of computer records can provide answers to an officer in the field, having key information on the plate covered up defeats that efficiency and can pose risks, VanHoy said.

License plates are manufactured in a way that makes them easy to read, he said. This includes the use of a reflective material that allows the numbers and letters to be seen at night.

But when over-sized covers or frames are used, more than just a visibility problem can result with law enforcement personnel. “It puts them in danger,” VanHoy said, adding that the new law “is for officers’ safety.”

The city police department and other agencies including the N.C. Highway Patrol hope the public will embrace the new law. That’s despite being in an era where people seemingly are taking more pride in their alma mater or trying to make a statement with stickers and other messages on their vehicles including personalized tags.

Automotive sections of department stores tend to cater to this by offering a wide range of decorative frames and covers for license plates.

“But what most people don’t realize is, it may not be legal,” VanHoy said of such an item.

He added that Mount Airy officers are trying to work with vehicle owners to help them adjust to the new law. “We’re just looking for compliance,” he said, with the intent not to write a lot of citations.

Typically when such laws are passed, city police might not ticket someone for a violation at first if it’s simply a matter of being unaware of the change. “We give written warnings and issue citations on occasion,” VanHoy said. “I’m sure they’ll be some verbal warnings” in response to the soon-to-be illegal covers.

But drivers who persist in using these items could face problems, especially since Mount Airy police keep records of warnings issued — allowing them to readily identify repeat offenders.

“It’s at the officer’s discretion” as to whether citations are issued, VanHoy said.

This article appeared in Friday's edition of the Mount Airy News.

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