Law enforcement cameras that snap photos of traffic violators are probably coming to a street near you. This Big Brother approach to traffic enforcement upsets many drivers and makes some wonder if there isn’t a way to fight back. A few companies offer to sell drivers products which obscure license plates when photographed by a traffic camera. Some people even claim that they have wrapped their license plates in plastic wrap and managed to escape liability. But is this kind of activity legal?
When technology advances, it often takes a bit of time for the laws to catch up. However, the laws on the books from before the time of traffic cameras covers this arena well enough for us to answer the question. It is probably not legal for you to coat or cover your plate with something in an effort to defeat a traffic camera. I say “probably” only because the nuances of these laws vary in all 50 states. But many states I've checked have laws that cover it.
Michigan, where I practice law, has a section of its Motor Vehicle Code which addresses license plates. When you get a plate, it must be displayed on the rear of the vehicle at least 12 inches from the ground, must be clearly visible, and mounted securely and horizontally. So, no, you cannot mount your plate sideways if that ever becomes a fad.
What about the notion of coating the plate with something or wrapping it in clear plastic wrap?
According to MCL 257.225(2), that's not legal either:
The plate shall be maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure the registration information, and in a clearly legible condition.
Spraying the license plate would obviously be applying a “foreign material” which obscures or partially obscures the plate’s “information.” That's how I believe a judge would interpret this. Any violation of this section is a civil infraction. Meaning you can get a ticket for simply getting caught trying to do this.
And that is where the bigger – non-lawyer – question comes in. If you used the spray – or the plastic wrap – and it worked, how would they catch you? Presumably, the camera would snap a picture of the back of your car and the plate would not be readable. Hence, they would not know who to ticket and the ticket would go to wherever undeliverable mail goes. It certainly would not find you.
As an attorney, I cannot advise you to try this experiment. As noted, if a police officer caught you with camera-obscuring spray on your plate he or she could ticket you just for that. AND, obviously, if an officer saw you driving with plastic wrap on your license plate, it would just be an invitation to be pulled over and ticketed.
Admittedly, the “obscured license plate” is not a ticket we see that often. But this is the same section of the law that requires you to keep your license plate clean, and we all know how that goes.
Steve Lehto is a writer and from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include , and . He also has a where he talks about these things.