Fake Tags Add to Real Chaos on American Roads


After hearing complaints about streets filled with cars with expired temporary license tags, the mayor of St. Charles, Mo., invited his constituents to send in photos of bad plates. He received more than 4,100 in a year — from a city of about 71,000 people.

A Washington, D.C., Council member wants to make it easier for officials to tow cars with expired tags, saying the proliferation of them around town “makes my community members crazy.” Texas will soon require dealerships to issue temporary metal plates when a car rolls off the lot, replacing the oft-abused paper tags.

The crackdown on “temp tags” comes in response to a problem that officials say has festered for years but exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside other chaos on American roads. Fatalities from car crashes rose, while pedestrian deaths in 2021 reached their highest level since the early 1980s. Such deaths have declined slightly, but remained well above prepandemic levels last year.

The rise in fake or expired plates has been robbing governments of needed revenue and making it harder to enforce traffic laws, which the American driver seems more emboldened than ever to ignore, part of a larger erosion of social mores.

“From what I am seeing, there is a real breakdown in automotive law and order,’’ said Dan Borgmeyer, the St. Charles mayor who encouraged citizens to report expired tags in his St. Louis suburb.

The shuttering of government offices during the pandemic caused disruptions and delays in routine bureaucratic functions like processing car registrations, and many states extended deadlines. At the same time, police departments reduced or halted traffic stops for minor offenses, because of staffing shortages and the intense scrutiny after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.

“This is one aspect of a much larger problem,’’ said Jonathan Adkins, chief executive of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “We are giving the public too much permission to flout rules.”

Temporary tags have been involved in a spate of deadly crashes and violent crimes in recent years. In Texas, a police officer died in a high-speed chase in 2022 while pursuing a driver with a fake paper tag. Another car with a sham plate was used in a shooting that same year at a Dallas hair salon.

Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, where 16 traffic-related deaths in 2021 involved vehicles with temporary license plates, said cars with fake tags had “become a weapon of death for our innocent New Yorkers.”

Police officers in several cities have started more aggressively pulling over or ticketing cars with improper tags. The effort is being cheered by citizens fed up with drivers who brazenly skirt the law, but it also is causing concerns that traffic stops will again escalate into violent encounters between motorists and the police.

“Race is going to play a role again, it’s inevitable,” said Jan Haldipur, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, who wrote a book on police “stop and frisk” policies in the Bronx. “It will be a factor not only in the likelihood of who gets stopped, but also in the use of physical force after someone is stopped.”

Many temporary paper plates are obtained illegally through networks of questionable car dealers and brokers, officials say. Others were issued legitimately, but their owners have kept them long past their expiration date to avoid paying the fees and taxes that permanent plates require. And some are simply counterfeits created on an average home printer.

In some cities, including Portland, Ore., even motorists with legitimate plates have become routinely late in registering their cars. “Since 2020, we have seen a decline in vehicle registration that is far beyond anything we have seen historically,” said Millicent D. Williams, director of the city’s transportation agency.

Officials say Portland reduced traffic stops after the race-related protests of 2020, but the city is planning to hire several new officers to help ramp up ticketing cars, a move it hopes will make up some of the fee revenue the city loses from expired registrations.

For many states, regulating the temporary tags is a more pressing concern. It has been relatively easy for some car dealerships to issue temporary paper plates, making the process ripe for abuse.

In states like Georgia and New Jersey, that has resulted in some obscure dealerships issuing tens of thousands of temporary tags — amounts that far exceed the number of cars they could have possibly sold, according to an investigation by Streetsblog.

The sham license plates can then be sold to drivers, often in different states, officials say, allowing them to avoid tolls and evade cameras that enforce speeding rules. The bogus plates also allow drivers to avoid paying insurance, registration fees and taxes.

Investigators in St. Charles recently worked undercover on a case that led to the arrest of a St. Louis man who produced more than 300 counterfeit temporary tags that he sold for $60 each. In a search of his home, police found a computer, a printer and blank paper with the Missouri seal. He pleaded guilty last year to selling counterfeit authentication features.

Some states are trying to modernize their laws to reduce fraud. Starting next year, Texas will replace temporary paper tags with metal ones, which will be more difficult to forge. This year, New Jersey tightened restrictions on car dealers, including fines of up to $5,000 for each time a dealer violates the rules around temporary tags.

In Washington, Brianne Nadeau, a Council member, has proposed a bill that would allow the city to tow or boot a car with improper temporary tags. Under current law, a car can be towed only if it has accumulated multiple tickets, she said.

Ms. Nadeau says the fake tags are contributing to a broader erosion of traffic safety by allowing drivers to evade detection by speed cameras. “When I am in my car and someone is zooming by and I look at the plate, it is usually a temporary tag,” she said.

Temporary tags are a particular sore spot in Missouri. “The biggest issue in community meetings is, ‘what can you do about all these temporary plates?’” said Captain Jennifer Crump of the Kansas City Police Department.

They’re working on it, she said. On a single day in January, the police pulled over more than 100 drivers with expired temporary plates and handed out tickets. Last month, officers stopped more than 300 people. One temp tag dated back to 2015.

Car buyers in Missouri are typically issued a temporary tag by a dealership and then have a few weeks to pick up the official plates from the state’s motor vehicle department where they also pay the sales taxes on their car purchase. Many people, the police say, are willing to risk getting a ticket for an expired tag, which can total more than $100, rather than paying the tax, which can total more than $1,000.

Some of the thousands of photos that the St. Charles mayor received from residents were forwarded to the police. Many cars were just passing through, but when the cars of St. Charles residents were identified, officers went to many of the home addresses associated with a temporary tag and issued a ticket.

Mayor Borgmeyer did his part, too. One day, he pulled up behind a car with expired temporary plates and snapped a picture with his phone. The driver rolled down his window and extended his middle finger. Mr. Borgmeyer sent the photo to the police, but by the time officers followed up, the driver had already started the process of obtaining a proper license plate.

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