Gersh Kuntzman, the editor of Streetsblog New York, blossomed into an on-camera star this winter with an unusual routine called “criminal mischief.”
Kuntzman’s shtick, which he has repeated in dozens of videos, was to find cars parked in New York with deliberately defaced license plates, the better to avoid local traffic cameras and tolls. Here was a dead leaf taped over the plate letters, there was a corner of the plate folded, now we have some paint over a scratched-out number. Sharpie in hand, Kuntzman restored each plate. You’d think the NYPD would have been supportive, but no: “Criminal mischief” is what a Brooklyn lawyer was arrested for last fall after performing a similar work of civic intervention.
Which raises some questions: License plates—why do we have them? Are they a mark of a functioning society or a stamp of the police state? And why is the work of maintaining them left to civic gadflies, even after two consecutive New York mayors have pledged to tackle the problem?
Kuntzman’s targets, with their plausible deniability, are only the beginning when it comes to license-plate fraud. A much larger scam is afoot in paper license plates, or “ghost tags.” An investigation this month by Streetsblog and the New Jersey Monitor found more than 100 car dealers that had gotten in trouble for violating temporary tag regulations, having issued more than 275,000 bogus paper license plates since 2019 alone. Some of these weren’t car dealers at all; all they did was sell temp tags.
It’s a problem from Manhattan to the Rio Grande, as cheap paper license plates proliferate on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. The rise in camera-generated tolling and ticketing and a pullback in traffic policing have combined to create some very strong incentives to opt out of America’s century-old system of traffic control.
This fraud unfolds against the backdrop of a roadway safety crisis. More pedestrians are being killed than at any point in the past 40 years; for motorists, the per-mile fatality rate has gone up more than 20 percent just since 2019. This has happened while our peer nations have all made enormous strides in reducing roadway deaths; the U.S. is going in the opposite direction. It’s hard to say if there’s a strong correlation between fake license plates and bad driving, though the former clearly abets the latter.
Most of the time, these discouraging trends get chalked up to infrastructure and automobile design, and with good reason. But the U.S. has also recently started to reevaluate its approach to automobile policing. After a century in which cars served as a one-way ratchet for police power, revising our understanding of the Fourth Amendment and serving as Americans’ leading source of interactions with police, many jurisdictions have stepped back traffic enforcement through some combination of civil rights concerns and police work stoppages.
Consider San Francisco: In 2019 the San Francisco Police Department wrote 27,029 traffic citations, or about 74 a day. In the first five months of 2022, the department was averaging 10 a day. And that’s from a staff of 45 in the department’s traffic division! At the same time, this was hardly a civil rights success story about the end of revenue-driven policing: Dangerous driving offenses (those likely to lead to pedestrian injury) are a smaller share of the tickets in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. And while San Francisco has less traffic now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, pedestrian deaths rose to a 10-year high last year, in line with national trends. (The department says a staffing shortage is to blame.)
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, traffic stops fell from 330,000 a year in the late 2010s to 150,000 in 2020 and 2021, a steeper decline than can be explained by reduced traffic counts in the COVID era. (The city recorded more than 150 traffic deaths in 2020, a 10-year high.)
Which brings us back to the fake license plates. Their popularity seems to jibe with this new, live-free-or-die status quo on the road, a cynical exploitation of a unique moment in policing. The left has soured on traffic stops, recognizing their discriminatory qualities and tendency to lead to tragic police-citizen interactions. The right has blocked automated traffic policing in many statehouses, because freedom. The police are wary of both cameras and enforcement.
The practice of pretextual traffic stops is a bad one—a discriminatory practice that drowns its victims in debt, it has produced a number of high-profile tragedies, such as the killings of Philando Castile and Patrick Lyoya. A New York Times investigation found that over a recent five-year period, American police officers had killed “motorists who were neither wielding a gun or knife nor under pursuit for a violent crime” after a traffic stop at a rate of more than once a week. One Alabama town managed to essentially toll a highway with a blitz of traffic stops. As a state trooper told me once, you can always find a legitimate reason to pull someone over.
That’s why many jurisdictions have decided to do away with traffic stops for low-level offenses. In Philadelphia, for example, after the aforementioned drop in citations, the city decided to phase out police enforcement of minor traffic violations, including dubious pretexts like “rearview mirror decorations.” Los Angeles has done something similar.
It’s too soon to say whether less traffic policing—whether it comes from police pullback or civil rights directives—is related to bad driving. But it taps into a larger question: How do you keep order on the road without the cycle of fines and penalties associated with traffic policing? The question, as with most things in American cities, has a racial dimension. First, because minorities have typically been the victims of discriminatory traffic policing. Second, because of the complicated, racially coded perception of what constitutes uncivil behavior on the road, and what to do about it.
You see this second issue crop up in the conversation around the dirt bike and ATVs that kids ride through the streets every summer in many American cities. Menacing, dangerous activity or joyful reclamation of public space? If it’s the former, is it worth the additional chaos of a targeted police response? You also see this conversation around loud cars—nuisance or proud hobby? And about “sideshows,” in which drivers shut down intersections to do doughnuts for crowds of onlookers. “At the end of the day, sideshows are best thought of as youthful nonsense,” Texas Monthly’s Jack Herrera writes. And about tinted windows, a practice in a legal gray area that’s simultaneously viewed as a safety measure for Black motorists, a hostile act toward pedestrians, and a well-known reason for pretextual traffic stops.
The backdrop to many of these conversations is the escalating cost of life in American cities, and the sense that sensitive new arrivals wish to impose their standards on practices that long predate their arrival.
All of this tends to muddy the waters a bit around the question of fake license plates, which are hardly defensible on any of these grounds. Pundit and eager discourse provoker Matt Yglesias has made a mission of reporting bogus paper tags in D.C., which is plagued by bad drivers from neighboring Maryland and Virginia. Yglesias’ following on Twitter is sufficiently large and angry that he could probably drum up controversy by washing people’s windshields, but nevertheless, the furious online reaction to his whistleblowing seems to tap into a widespread sense that traffic policing is ipso facto unfair.
It doesn’t have to be. The irony is that those paper tags have become popular thanks to automated tolling, in which a camera reads your license plate and sends a bill in the mail. This technology has the potential to throw out the bathwater of bad policing but save the baby of traffic safety. Cameras can easily capture and fine dangerous driving, such as significant speeding and red-light running, while ignoring, say, a vehicle registration that’s three weeks out of date.
But people might hate traffic cameras even more than they hate traffic stops, perceiving them (not without reason) as deployed to raise money rather than promote road safety. New York City has had to beg for its authorization from the state Legislature; Philadelphia has a pilot that will soon expire absent a bill from the state. Speed cameras are illegal in California.
Still, you can imagine a world where cameras are designed to focus on reckless driving, with an escalating series of fines that put the heavy penalties on repeat offenders. Like the guy with dozens of outstanding tickets who killed a couple of people on Rock Creek Parkway in D.C. last month. Of course, that won’t work if no one has a real license plate.