California’s Ridiculous Temporary License Plate Rules Need to End

I recently spent a few days in California, noted location of beautiful weather, breathtaking scenery, and thousands of smelly, bearded men who sleep in their Volkswagen Vanagons.

I'm just kidding, of course. I LOVE California. Love, love, love, love, love. I say this because I recently wrote a column with a few critical words about Ohio, and I'm still getting e-mails from angry Ohioans who feel that they must avenge to the fullest any hostility towards their home state, even if it's a couple of sentences on a Jalopnik column. "The thing about you," these e-mails say, "is that you're no better than a child molester." So I want to go on the record saying that California is great, and I would love to live there, even though buying a home in a desirable area costs approximately the same amount of money as World War II.

But there is one small issue I've noticed when it comes cars in California. The issue is: if you have a temporary license plate, you can commit ­any crime you want — red light running, toll lane violations, murder, bestiality — with absolutely no fear of getting caught. And here's the other thing: you can do this for as long as you want. For days, months, years, you can commit these crimes, completely undetected.

Allow me to explain.

In your home state, which is not California, one of two things happens when you buy a car. The first possibility is that they issue you a license plate right there at the dealership, which is what happens in a few northeastern states. This is an excellent idea, and I think there's absolutely no possible way that any type of fraud could come out of giving a stack of unissued, fully legal license plates to Big Bob's Used Cars and Bail Bonds, where repeat customers get a free Glock 17.

It's more likely, however, that they issue you a temporary license plate. What happens here is you get a little paper plate, often affixed to the back window, with a set of numbers and a boldly-printed expiration date. Usually these things are good for 30 days, or maybe 60 days, which allows the dealer ample time to process your paperwork and the DMV ample time to lose it.

These things are foolproof: you drive around with the paper plate for a few weeks, and when it expires, you go to the DMV and pick up your actual metal license plate. If you're feeling especially chipper that day, you may even spring for one of those special plates, the ones that say "Support Wildlife" and feature a beautiful scene with birds, and trees, and deer, and a sunset, until you put it on your car, at which point you cover it up with a huge dealer license plate frame. ("BIG BOB'S CARS – YOU'LL BE IN SHOCK WHEN YOU SEE OUR GLOCKS")

Well, that's not what happens in California. What happens in California is, you buy a car, and then you're given 90 days to register it. Sounds the same, right? But there's a big difference: the 90 days is based purely on the honor system.

To explain, let's start with the actual temporary plates themselves. There are none. Instead, people who recently bought a car simply drive around for a while — nobody knows how long — with those brightly-colored license plate inserts that dealerships put on all the cars that sit on their lots. Seriously: an enormous portion of cars in California drive around every single day with a "Toyota of San Whatever" license plate insert as their sole form of valid registration. And this is legal.

So what happens is, you'll be cruising down the highway — excuse me, the freeway­ — in California, and you get up next to some guy who's also cruising down the freeway, except that he is currently selling nuclear weaponry to terrorists. You can see the whole deal go down: he's sitting there, nuclear weapon in one hand, while the terrorist is sitting in the passenger seat, giving him a huge briefcase with a dollar sign on it. Oh, and they aren't even signaling their lane changes. They're just horrible people all around.

So you spring into action. You call the police to report what you've seen, and the police ask for a license plate number. But there is no license plate. There's just Toyota of San Whatever. So the police don't find the guy. Months later, the terrorist detonates the nuclear bomb, killing hundreds of baby seals, puppies, and cute elderly couples just days away from some milestone wedding anniversary that would've made the local papers.

Now, I admit that California does issue a temporary registration to people who just bought a car. But rather than a paper license plate on the back window, this temporary registration is in the form of a notecard-sized piece of paper on the front windshield with print so tiny that it looks like it came from the extended warranty on a laptop computer.

California’s Ridiculous Temporary License Plate Rules Need to End


As a result, no one has any idea when California temporary registrations expire. In other words: if your car looks new enough, and you have a dealer plate insert on the back, you probably won't be stopped. We all know Steve Jobs took advantage of this for years with his vehicles — and it opens up some interesting possibilities.

Consider, for a moment, the Mercedes G-Wagen, which looks approximately the same now as it did when it was released in 2002. You could've bought one of these things new twelve years ago and driven around California for more than a decade with reckless abandon, skipping out on taxes and fees, along with red light cameras and photo radar tickets. You could've commuted over the Golden Gate Bridge three thousand times without paying a toll, while your fellow motorists — the ones who went and got license plates, those suckers — have to pay seven bucks every day.

So clearly, we have a problem on our hands, and something should be done immediately. In fact, I'm surprised to learn that nothing has already been done to stop this behavior in regulation-heavy California. But I have a theory on why it's taken so long: the lawmakers all got their vehicles at Toyota of San Whatever. And they love those free drives over the Golden Gate Bridge.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.