Inspection Sticker Surprise: States Now Banning License Plate Frames – Here’s Why

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License plate covers and frames have long been illegal in many places. Here’s why states are now cracking down on this common accessory.

Almost without exception, every new car buyer drives home with a license plate frame affixed to their new car. It is put there by the car the dealership as an advertisement, but they do help keep plates from being bent in car washes. Many people like to purchase a custom plate frame to show support for their favorite team or organization or to display a funny slogan. This commonplace part of the automotive culture is about to change.


With states now moving towards toll-booth free toll roads, states want to be sure they have a very clear look at the plate of every vehicle that passes under their transponder reading machines. Though most drivers in a given area do try to comply with the law by registering for and then mounting a transponder on their windshield, the state wants ALL the revenue from ALL the cars that pass by its electronic readers. States want the revenue from those with transponders that have worn out, been forgotten, or perhaps never existed and a camera that reads the plate is the backup plan.

States don’t want anything obscuring that revenue-generating photo. “Easily identifiable license plate information is not only critical to highway safety but also promotes the fair collection of tolls from vehicles lacking an E-ZPass transponder,” said MassDOT Highway Administrator Frank DePaola in 2014.

View a list of every plate’s rules regarding plate frames and covers

Plate covers were outlawed by most states long ago. The initial reason was that police departments now use automatic plate readers that can instantly read and run the plate of any vehicle that passes within the view of the cruiser with the reader. Police want to ensure that every plate is visible, so they convinced lawmakers to outlaw covers of any kind, regardless of whether or not the covers actually interfered with the plate reader’s functionality.

This month, the state of New York made it clear that this is about dollars and cents. The state police are planning a two-week crackdown on plate covers and frames. Speaking at a news conference, State Police Maj. David Candelaria, commander of Troop L in Farmingdale, said, “Strict enforcement is important because license plate covers and having only one license plate are allowing motorists to evade tickets and tolls.”

During the annual safety inspection in Massachusetts, the inspection station technicians have begun to remove plate frames from owners’ vehicles. We spoke to Tom Daley about the new rule enforcement. Tom is co-owner of Daley Service in Norfolk, Massachusetts. Tom told BestRide that Massachusetts contracts with a company that periodically inspects and certifies the station for annual safety inspections.

The most recent visit by the group’s inspector resulted in a detailed conversation that made it clear that no vehicle with any plate frame or cover was to pass going forward. Thus, the station now removes them and carefully replaces the plates with proper fasteners at no added cost to the vehicle owner.

You can read the current Massachusetts registration plate law yourself here. Funny, we don’t see the part about “frames” in the law as written. Interestingly, in a 2014 court case called The Commonwealth vs. Michael Bernard, a state judge ruled that the Massachusetts law does not actually prohibit all plate covers or frames.  Just ones that obscure the numbers.

The ruling summary states, “This court concluded that a license plate cover, tinted or not, does not violate clear language of G. L. c. 90, § 6, or its implementing regulation unless it obscures the registration numbers of the vehicle on which it is placed, or reduces the legibility or substantially diminishes the reflective quality of the license plate.”

California’s law is much more direct, or perhaps just better written. It bans any, “… casing, shield, frame, border, product, or other device that obstructs or impairs the reading or recognition of a license plate by an electronic device operated by state or local law enforcement, an electronic device operated in connection with a toll road, high-occupancy toll lane, toll bridge, or other toll facility, or a remote emission sensing device.”

Like many states, Massachusetts is also eliminating the older single plates (green) that are still in circulation and forcing owners to get new front and rear plates of the new, dual style. Again, this is so that plate readers can properly collect revenue and do on the spot checks for outstanding warrants or overdue fines. If you think that this is just the latest affront to American civil liberties, you may want to view the video below. Canada is way ahead of us.


John Goreham

John Goreham