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If you live in California, there’s a decent chance you’ve spotted a car wearing a unique, differently colored license plate. And no, I’m not talking about the popular retro black plate nor any of the other special interest plates issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. I’m talking about plates like the one pictured up there (I changed the numbers, BTW), which are customized to match a car’s color schemes or owner’s specific style whims. Anecdotally, they seem particularly prevalent on Teslas, and I must admit that they look pretty good. Being able to customize your license plate to match your car is terrific idea, especially when your state has such a lousy standard license plate.

The trouble is, they are illegal. 

That was my suspicion, because how could just making your own license plates possibly be legal, right? I nevertheless reached out to the California DMV, who passed along the specific sections of the California Vehicle Code (CVC) that they violate.

According to Section 4464, “A person shall not display upon a vehicle a license plate that is altered from its original markings.” This would cover license plate vinyl wrap kits, such as these, which use your DMV-issued license plate.

Indeed, the California Highway Patrol told us that the number of violations for altered license plates has indeed been increasing. In 2020 and 2021, the CHP issued approximately 220 citations for displaying a license plate that is altered from its original markings (as in wrapping it). In 2022 alone, that number jumped to more than 990 citations. The CHP did note that these did not include digital license plates or the vinyl front license plate wraps that are part of a legal DMV pilot program. It did note whether the CHP officers who wrote the citations checked to see if the offending plate was indeed wrapped or a from-scratch creation. 

The legality of the latter is less clear, but does seem to be addressed by Section 4463. It states that “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 car, 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 car, certificate, license, license plate, temporary license plate, special plate or permit.”

The punishment for this is imprisonment “for 16 months, or two or three years, or by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year” That’s a lot more severe than the fines incurred by forging a disabled persons sticker or Clean Air (carpool lane) sticker. 

There is definitely a gray area here, especially regarding the “intent to prejudice, damage, or defraud,” but these sure seem like they’d be defined as counterfeit plates. They are effectively poor counterfeits as they are the wrong color, but they are counterfeits nevertheless. 

There’s no shortage of them available either, with numerous available on Etsy alone. The sellers do alert you to the possible legal ramifications of using their products as something other than a fun trinket to hang on the wall of your garage or roadside-style restaurant. 

One writes “* Disclaimer * Check with your state laws or take your own risk on wrapping your license plates” while another that specifically creates custom “replica” California license plates states “Please note that all License Plates sold by seller are sold as show plates. We cannot be held responsible for any fines or convictions resulting from using plates for any purposes but for the one for which they were designed.” That little legal tidbit is right at the bottom of a lengthy product description, but hey, they do technically wash their hands of the matter. 

So, certainly consult your lawyer if you think the above sections don’t actually apply to your custom license plate, or at least know that you’ll be running afoul of California law — much as you are if you choose not to mount a front license plate as so many do in California.

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