Drew Mendelson is a writer, a Vietnam vet, and a former consultant to some of the state’s big-name politicians. What he’s not is a scofflaw or scam artist. Neither is his wife or son.
So no surprise that Mendelson was taken aback recently when his son was pulled over while driving Mendelson’s wife’s car and issued a $1,000 citation for defacing the car’s license plate.
The law, a recent one, says, “a person shall not erase the reflective coating (or) paint over the reflective coating or alter a license plate to avoid visual or electronic capture of the license plate” by police.
The car’s 8-year-old license plate was definitely peeling. But nobody in the Mendelson family had done anything to cause that.
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Here’s the background on the law: Police agencies increasingly use car cameras that read license plates of nearby vehicles. Some Sacramento city police vehicles have them, as do some county sheriff’s cruisers, and a handful of local California Highway Patrol vehicles.
If the car is stolen or if there are warrants attached to the car, the officer’s onboard computer monitor immediately alerts the officer.
Law enforcement says the system has become an important tool. But it has caused some people to scrape off or otherwise deface the coating, or cover the plate with a plastic pane to avoid detection. Thus, the new law.
The law appears to be tricky to enforce. Mendelson challenged his ticket in court, and won. The judge, he said, sided with him because the Mendelsons hadn’t altered the plate.
Mendelson says he has since seen peeling plates on other cars. Looking around, we noticed the same.
In some states, defective manufacturing of plates has been a problem. New York’s governor last year ordered that state’s DMV to replace peeling laminate on some older plates for free, when it became apparent that defective materials or workmanship was causing a rash of delaminations. A few years ago, Illinois recalled 1.1 million license plates because their reflective coating was bubbling and peeling.
In California? Our DMV officials, in an email, said they know of no major problems. They note that anyone with a damaged plate can fill out a form –and pay $20 – to get a new one. But the form does not have a place for someone in Mendelson’s situation to tell the DMV the plate appears to be defective, to release them of the $20 fee obligation.
The state Prison Industry Authority, which manufactures license plates for the DMV, says plates should last as long as the car does, and should not be overly affected by sun, rain or other outdoor effects. Officials say they have had some problems with the protective coating on plates, but, in response to a Sacramento Bee inquiry, said they have never had any recalls and have not had any significant issues in the past decade.
As for Mendelson, he ordered two new plates and stickers.