Car sticker theft solution could bring trouble

June 8, 2012 8:52:26 PM PDT
It's an ongoing problem-- crooks stealing your license plate tags and putting them on unregistered cars. There's a popular product to protect you, but if you use it, you could wind up in trouble.

Here's the twist. These products are sold all over the state -- covers that protect your license plates from theft or damage. It's perfectly legal to sell them, but don't try to use one.

"Not once, but twice I've had the sticker stolen off of my car and I got tired of it," said Julie Silva.

It was a big hassle when a thief stole the registration tag off Silva's car. She waited hours at the DMV to get a new sticker, only to have that one stolen too. Then more DMV hassle.

"You have to make an appointment with the DMV first off, and then you have to actually show them the sticker is gone so take the license plate in, and then you pay a fee. You put the sticker on the car and hope nobody steals it again," said Silva.

Silva was fed up with stolen tags, so she went out and bought a license plate protector -- a clear plastic shield which she fastened over her license plate. Now it would be pretty hard to steal her tags, except there was just one little problem.

"It's illegal to have on your car," said CHP Officer Mike Ferguson.

Ferguson reveals a surprising fact-- it's illegal in California to use these covers, even though they're sold all over the state.

"The law says you can't have anything that completely covers the license plate," said Ferguson.

Vehicle Code Section 5201 says "No portion of a ?cover shall rest over the license plate number." Not even if you can see right through it.

"You could be stopped and you could receive a ticket," said Ferguson.

That is exactly what happened to Silva. She was pulled over and ordered to remove the shield. Now, she's worried about her tags.

"I don't think it's fair to people who work hard, who are trying to protect what's theirs," said Silva.

"We're talking a piece of plain, clear plastic, like Saranwrap," said Jeanette Page, Silva's mom.

Silva's mom wanted to know what's wrong with a clear plastic cover if it can stop a crook.

"I said to her, 'I'm calling 7 On Your Side maybe Michael Finney can tell me,'" said Silva.

"It makes it harder to see as a law enforcement officer," said Ferguson.

Ferguson showed us the problem. Light reflects off the plastic cover, creating a glare. It can obscure the numbers on the plate.

"I've run into some that have a tint along with it, I've run into some that are very, very dirty," said Ferguson.

And yet, we found the shields are widely sold throughout California. Ferguson says it's legal to sell them-- just illegal to use them.

They are fairly common, they are commercially available and they are selling them," said Ferguson.

We bought one at O'Reilly's Auto Parts for $5. The package does include this warning saying "your state may prohibit its use." and "check before installing." So why do stores sell these if we can't use them?

Retailers we spoke with said some customers may use the shields for show cars, which are kept off the roads, or driving out of state.

O'Reilly's and Pep Boys also said they would refund customers who said they didn't notice the warning to check for local laws. And a Walmart spokesperson said the covers were to be removed from California stores. So is there any legal use for this? Or did I just waste $5?

"I'm sure if you left it in your garage and put it on the wall it would be fine but not on your car while you're driving," said Ferguson.

The CHP offers a simple way to deter tag thieves. You can slice the sticker with a razor so that if it comes off, it doesn't come off in one piece. You can also buy license plate frames that partially cover only the tags so it's harder to peel them off. Those frames are legal if they don't cover the license numbers.

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