Illegal Car Trend Is Skyrocketing With 16-Month Jail Time

It’s hard to keep track of all the specialty license plates California offers. We especially liked 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 a car’s paint or as an accent, which isn’t legal.

How do they make illegal license plates?

CA license plates
Wrapped license plates | Thom Taylor, MotorBiscuit

We weren’t sure whether the Department of Motor Vehicles was offering this color-keyed plate option, or if they were done by the car’s owner and the police were giving them a pass. The answer is no to both questions. 

Car owners are changing their plate colors by ordering wraps. But everything about a car has regulations, and so do plates. The 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 you see with eyes added to double zeros are illegal. 

Where the 16 months of jail time enters the picture is in Section 4463. “Any 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?

CA license plates
CA wrapped plates | Thom Taylor, MotorBiscuit

You’ll note that references to plates are numerous and that changing colors with a wrap fits numerous instances cited as illegal. Punishment for any of these 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 the wrap companies.

According to Autoblog, the California Highway Patrol issued a combined 220 citations for wrapped plates in 2020 and 2021. But by 2022, that number had increased to almost 1,000. And anecdotally, there are enough of them out there that we see driving in and around Orange County and Los Angeles. We’ve seen the matching color ones, as well as rainbow versions with each numeral a different color, and those with red, white, and blue, or black, red, and yellow. 

Is this only in California?

CA license plates
California license plates | DMV
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Sometimes the colors alternate with each numeral. Other times, colors vary on each numeral. Either way, it’s all the same to the CHP. They are also checking to see whether the offending plates are wraps or complete fabrications. It is unclear if there is a distinction between whether one is more of a crime than the other.

Whatever the case, as we expect most license plate laws to be universal from state to state, even if you don’t live in California, you may start seeing these colorful plates near you.