Why is it legal to buy and sell used license plates?

This thread got me wondering again about something I’ve wondered about intermittently.

In a lot of touristy areas, e.g. Fisherman’s Wharf or Waikiki Beach, you see shops selling used license plates from many states. Where do they get them? Who buys them, and why? The whole thing has always seemed a little fishy to me.

Here in California the license plates go with the vehicle unless you do the paperwork to keep them, and I think then you have to transfer them to another vehicle. And if you lose or mutilate a plate, you have to turn the other one in to the DMV to get a new set. The only source I can think of for used plates would be from a wrecked car, but it would be relatively easy for the DMV to require the plates to be returned in order to declare a car wrecked.

I’m surprised it’s legal to sell used plates in these (cue dramatic yet soulful chord) post-9/11 times. It doesn’t take an FBI agent to realize that if legitimate license plates can be an important aid to law enforcement, then readily available fake plates will negate that function.

It’s not legal to sell property you don’t own, and in all states AFAIK the plates are the property of the state and not the holder.

When Connecticut switched to a new plate style a few years ago, they just mailed out new plates. Or at least I think they mailed them, although that sounds somewhat impractical. Anyways, I got new plates through magic or something, and I was supposed to switch them with my old ones at my leisure. Once I did that I still had my old plates and they’re still sitting around here somewhere.

So that’s one way that plates get out in the world unattached to valid registrations. And I don’t imagine the state owns these plates anymore in any meaningful sense.

I would assume that every state would not allow the sale of valid, live license plates.

If the plates were no longer valid, then anyone should be able to sell them.

In WI and ND you keep the plates (not sure of other states) One big exception I can see is personalized plates. You pay extra for them and therefore belong to you.

Another angle I see is this. Say you have CA plate 456379JH. If you take them off a '97 Civic and sell them to a used-plate-shop, the seller just says they were stolen. Then sell the Civic and the new owner goes to the DMV for new plates. Or even replacement plates. As long as that number doesn’t show up on another car, no problem.

Side note: I’ve always had a problem with plates staying with a car. Now this is far-fetched, but what if you pissed off someone two years ago and all they remember is the plate number? When they see that plate again, they don’t know it’s a different owner.

Oh, fooey. If somebody wants some plates to use for a vehicle they’re committing a crime with, all they have to do is swipe them off another car just before the crime, so that they aren’t reported as stolen yet, and ditch them again afterwards.

Note that the used plates are expired, which makes them risky to use, although you can likely drive around for quite a while on an expired plate without getting noticed. Before most states just started issuing stickers, they issued you new plates periodically, often changing the colors. Many people had a whole stack of expired plates, and some people started tacking them up for decorations.

What about if you don’t take the vehicle to a wrecking yard - you just park it in the back yard and let it sit there? There’s a little box on a CA car registration for noting that you’ve junked the car, etc, but I’ll guess enough people just stop registering a car they are no longer driving on the streets, or move to another state which doesn’t bother notifying CA that the car is now registered there that the DMV can’t possibly figure out why registrations aren’t renewed and collect old license plates.

I believe CA DID collect my Colorado plates when I moved there, but I have some old Montana and Pennsylvania plates, so Colorado and Montana didn’t collect my old plates. Could have something to do with those being “plate with owner” states, not “plate with car” states like CA.

In the state of Ohio, you own your license plate.

Cite: Bureau of Motor Vehicles lady, North Hill District of Akron, Ohio

If any gov’t official in The People’s Republic of Ohio says you own it over the State, there’s hope for us all. :wink:

When New York last changed their license plates, they were told the old plates could go out with recycling. That implies that they don’t care how you dispose of them. Since there was a design change, anyone using the old plates would be spotted, increasing the risk for any planned crime.

I’ve got a collection of used plates, as I decorate my basement and bar area with them (plus road signs, etc).

It is very hard to get them, but alot of people have their old ones. In San Fran, I was able to buy old ones out of an old box at a number of discount shops. (I live in NJ). But most I have to just spread the word that I want old license plates and people will remember and give them up.

Doesn’t e-bay have them, too?

My state regularly re-issues entirely new plates every few years. So I have a whole stack of clearly invalid plates in my garage. To say the state has no interest in what I do with these is an understatement. (Phrases that start with “Don’t give a …” come to mind.)

Here in the UK you have to pay an annual road tax fee if your car is being used on the road. Don’t pay it and drive on the road, you get fined and cops can tell if your plate is taxed for use just by typing it into a computer in their car. If you want to keep your car and numberplate but not drive it on the road you have to fill in a SORN instead of a tax/road license. SORN means Statutory Off Road Notification, so here in the UK at least the government theoretically knows the status (on road, off road, scrapped) of every single car and number plate in the country


Of course :slight_smile:


It isn’t be difficult to lift peoples’ wallets or purses and then run off and charge a bunch of stuff to their credit cards, but that doesn’t mean that there should be open-air, legal markets for stolen credit cards.

I am very much against mindless regulation and zero-tolerance BS, but banning possession or sale of expired license plates would seem to offer a gain in security while only causing inconvenience to people who decorate their garages with old license plates (a small minority by any stretch).

And I don’t think it really offers that much - by trying to use an expired plate, you are risking getting pulled over by an attentive cop who happens to notice the sticker isn’t up to date. I got fined for letting my registration lapse once, along with a lot of other people, when CA goofed up on sending out the usual mail reminders. I drove around on urban streets and freeways for a long time unaware of the expired tag - I drove out of town and a state cop nailed me. We had another thread on this topic, and the consensus was that city cops don’t pay much attention, but the state cops check your sticker when they pull up behind you.

I was wondering if somebody would note that my “steal a plate then ditch it” scenario wouldn’t work for the crook who wanted to swap a plate permanently on a stolen car. Of course, running an expired plate on it wouldn’t be a good idea either.

Using expired plates for decoration seems to be a bit of Americana that appeals to some people - sometimes businesses do it. There’s a barbeque place near me with expired plates all over the walls.

Guess again!

Here in Minnesota, there are a whole lot of people who have the dock at their lake cabin up north with old license plates on each side. Cheaper & better reflectors than the ones you can buy in stores, and also personalized.

Recently, I saw some bird houses that used old tags for the roof. Worrying about old tags being used for illegal purposes, sure falls under the heading of mindless regulation and zero-tolerance BS in my book.