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It’s hard to keep track of all the specialty license plates California offers for cars. We especially like the color-keyed versions, which we thought were like vanity plates. That is until we found out they’re illegal. We’re seeing more and more of the retro black plates and vanity plates, which are legal, with different-colored numerals matching or accenting a car’s paint, which isn’t legal.

How do they make illegal license plates?

An illegal California license plate
A wrapped California license plate | Thom Taylor, MotorBiscuit

We weren’t sure whether the Department of Motor Vehicles was offering these color-keyed plate options or they were done by the cars’ owners and the police gave them a pass. The answer to both is no.

Drivers are changing their license plate colors by ordering wraps. But California DMV Section 4464 states, “A person shall not display upon a vehicle a license plate that is altered from its original markings.” So even those plates with eyes added to double zeros are illegal. 

The mention of imprisonment for 16 months appears in Section 4463. “A person who, with intent to prejudice, damage, or defraud, commits any of the following acts is guilty of a felony … alters, forges, counterfeits, or falsifies a certificate of ownership, registration card, certificate, license, license plate, temporary license plate … or alters, forges, counterfeits, or falsifies the document, device, or plate with intent to represent it as issued by the department … or permits to be displayed or have in their possession a blank, incomplete, canceled, suspended, revoked, altered, forged, counterfeit or false certificate of ownership, registration card, certificate, license, license plate, temporary license plate, special plate, or permit.”

How much have license plate citations increased?

An illegally wrapped California license plate
A wrapped California license plate | Thom Taylor, MotorBiscuit

You’ll note that references to license plates are numerous and that changing colors with a wrap fit numerous illegal acts. Punishment by imprisonment is “for 16 months, or two or three years, or by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year.” That’s why most of these wrap makers indemnify themselves with warnings in their ads. The wraps are “show plates,” according to many wrap companies.

Autoblog reported that the California Highway Patrol (CHP) issued 220 citations for wrapped plates in 2020 and 2021. But by 2022, that number had increased to almost 1,000. And anecdotally, we see plenty of them in Orange County and Los Angeles. We’ve spotted the matching color plates and rainbow versions with each numeral a different color. And those with red, white, and blue, or black, red, and yellow, too. 

Are these plates only in California?

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Sometimes the colors alternate with each numeral. Other times, colors vary on each digit. Either way, it’s all the same to the CHP. State troopers are also checking whether the illegal license plates are wrapped or complete fabrications. It’s unclear if one is considered more of a crime than the other.

Whatever the case, even if you don’t live in California, you might start seeing these colorful license plates near you.