California car buyers face new headaches and hazards, thanks to a new law that took effect on January 1, 2019. Some unlucky car buyers may end up losing their cars, and their jobs, or in prison — because someone else screwed up.
The new law requires car dealers to install temporary license tags that expire 90 days after consumers purchase a new or used car.
Until this year, dealers who sold cars without permanent plates taped a folded-up “report of sale” inside the back window, where the expiration date was difficult, or impossible, to read. The new temporary tags have prominent expiration dates and bar codes that make them easy for toll collectors, police, repossession companies, parking enforcement, and others to target, simply by scanning the tags with an inexpensive scanning tool.
In many other states, when you buy a car from a car dealer, the dealer must install permanent metal plates on your car before it leaves the lot. But in California, now dealers give you temporary tags, while you wait for the permanent plates to arrive.
Under California law, you must install the permanent plates as soon as you get them, or within that 90-day window. But here’s the catch: if you don’t get the permanent plates on time, you can be pulled over by the police or Highway Patrol while you’re driving along and minding your own business, and ticketed for having expired tags — even if it’s not your fault.
You read that right. YOU are the one who suffers, even when it’s the car dealer, Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), or “first line service provider” chosen by the car dealer who failed to send you the permanent plates on time.
After 90 days are up, you are suddenly subject to being pulled over and ticketed, or worse. The penalties don’t fit the “crime,” especially since the license numbers on the temp tags are clearly visible for an extended period, and may be legible for many more months, making your car easy for law enforcement, toll collectors, or others to spot.
Temporary tags may cause tickets to skyrocket
What will happen in California, now that temporary tags make it ridiculously easy for police, repossession companies, and others to track cars and scan the tags, so they can target consumers stuck with expired tags?
Here’s what happened in a small village on Long Island, New York, when police started using scanners to track cars: “Since the scanners went live Nov. 2, they have been triggering an average of 700 alarms a day, mainly about cars on the road with expired or suspended registration stickers. Officers have impounded 500 vehicles. They’ve written more than 2,000 court summonses, mostly for minor violations.”
When that’s what happens in a small village, how many more car owners will be ticketed, lose their cars, or be hauled into court in California? Fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for a rough ride.
In response to a recent Public Records Act request from Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, the California Highway Patrol provided data showing that from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018, the CHP impounded 54,442 vehicles. Those numbers are likely to skyrocket. Plus police and parking enforcement in cities, towns, and rural areas will issue more tickets and add even more cars to the pool of impounded vehicles.
The DMV fails to have a system in place to warn consumers about the potentially serious consequences of having an expired temp tag, or to remind hapless car buyers when the deadline is near. In fact, DMV officials tout being pulled over on the freeway, with traffic zooming by, or on a remote, isolated rural road, as an appropriate, effective way to learn your temp tags have expired and you are entering the twisted Twilight Zone of attempting to deal with deadbeat dealers and the DMV.
For most motorists, at a minimum, traffic stops cause anxiety and delays. The tickets are also costly and can cause real hardship. For some, they can be fatal. What starts out as a routine traffic stop may escalate and rapidly spiral out of control. Relatively trivial violations sometimes lead to violent death. Especially when drivers are African-American, Latino, or other persons of color, they face a higher degree of serious, potentially life-threatening risks. Remember Philando Castile? And Sandra Bland? They lost their lives during traffic stops for minor violations. But California’s DMV and other state officials blithely dismiss concerns about the safety of motorists who are pulled over by police or the CHP just because they have expired tags.
A fix-it ticket you cannot fix
The DMV also scoffs at the notion that being ticketed can have devastating economic consequences. According to the DMV, “The fine amount can differ depending in the county where a violation occurs. The fines range from $25 with proof of correction up to $197 without proof of correction.” That may not seem like much to a highly paid, high-level DMV executive, but for many families struggling to make ends meet, that can be a real hit.
As if that’s not bad enough, the DMV adds: “Drivers may receive multiple tickets if they delay making the correction.” Uh-oh.
For many car buyers, trying to get “proof of correction” from the DMV is an exercise in extreme frustration. A common scenario: a car dealer goes out of business without submitting the registration documents, leaving hundreds of consumers unable to get their permanent plates. When that happens, it can take the DMV more than a year to sort things out.
Meanwhile, YOU are the one waiting in line at the DMV, pleading for help, and getting hit with tickets — over and over again, sometimes until your car is towed away and impounded. Then you get hit with hefty towing and impound fees. Catch 22: If you’re not the registered owner, even if you pay all the fees, you still cannot reclaim your car.
Bottom line: Those tickets can add up. Fast. Even if you are trying desperately to get things fixed. Get too many citations, and your car is impounded by the police or CHP. For someone who needs their vehicle to keep their job, or take their disabled child for medical treatments, or get their kids to day care or school, losing a car because it was impounded can be a disaster.
Whose idea was this absurdly unjust system?
Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) authored this anti-consumer legislation (AB 516) at the behest of toll companies, car dealers, “service providers” chosen by car dealers, and police agencies.
In 2013, toll companies complained to Mullin that they were losing millions of dollars in revenue when scofflaws driving newly purchased cars with car dealer tags on them blew through toll booths without paying the tolls. The car dealer tags typically trumpet the name of the dealership — like “Toyota of XXX” — but provide no identifying number so that toll operators can locate the drivers and collect.
The toll collectors convinced Mullin to carry a bill to require temp tags, to stop the scofflaws and increase their revenues. But the first version of Mullin’s legislation, introduced in 2014, failed to pass, because it was opposed by the California New Car Dealers Association.
The dealers view tags that display their names as a terrific way to advertise. Temp tags could interfere with their unique way of getting their names in front of more eyeballs, on the roads and in driveways.
To appease the car dealers, the next year Mullin added an increase in the so-called “document fee” and other fees that car dealers and their “service providers” are allowed to charge consumers. He also allowed the dealers to include the name of their dealership on the temporary tags, for advertising purposes.
The toll company / car dealer legislation was opposed by non-profit pro-consumer and civil rights groups, who sought reasonable protections for car buyers who cannot get their vehicles registered, or get their permanent plates, through no fault of their own. Those groups and attorneys who represent victims of abusive car dealer / DMV practices cited numerous examples of totally innocent consumers who have been pulled over and ticketed, even before the new law was on the books.
Some victims were also threatened with arrest, or actually handcuffed and arrested. Some had their cars towed away and impounded. Then the DMV refused to allow them to get their cars out of impound, even if they paid all the tickets and the hefty impound fees, because they weren’t the registered owners. All because a car dealer, “service provider,” or the DMV messed up or deliberately stalled handing over their permanent plates.
New law threatens to harm low-income consumers and communities of color
One of the civil rights non-profits opposed to Assemblymember Mullin’s legislation, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, wrote:
“LCCR recently published, in collaboration with other groups, a report entitled Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, which shows the many ways that low-income California drivers, and particularly communities of color, are impacted by unfair laws that result in license suspensions and hefty fines, and that lead people into an endless cycle of debt and court involvement from which they cannot extricate themselves. Rather than reverse this trend, AB 516 would contribute to it.”
Making matters worse: In California. car dealers are not required to provide car buyers their permanent plates within 90 days. In fact, California’s DMV actually allows car dealers to have the plates sent to themselves, instead of the car buyers. This is an open invitation for dealers to cheat their customers.
Adding insult to injury: the car buyers pay the car dealer for the permanent plates and the registration when they buy the car. But they have no control over when their car is registered, or when they get their plates. They are at the mercy of the car dealers, the dealers’ “service providers,” and the DMV. But it’s the car buyers who are penalized if the plates are late, or never arrive. Obviously, this insane “Catch-22” system is rife for abuse.
Looking for help from the DMV? Good luck with that.
In response to complaints about abuses, DMV officials shrug and dismiss them, claiming that when a ticket is issued, it is merely a “fix-it” ticket. But here’s the hitch: you cannot get it fixed. Hapless car buyers have spent countless hours waiting in lines at the DMV, going back over and over again, pleading to have their registrations completed, only to be told:
- “Sorry, there’s nothing the DMV can do.”
- “Sorry, it’s under investigation and we have no idea how long that will take. It might take years.”
- Sorry, before you can get the registration, and your plates, you need to post a bond.
- “Sorry, there’s a problem with the registration, and you need to work it out with the dealer.”
- “Sorry, someone needs to pay off a lien, that costs thousands of dollars, before the dealer can get the title and complete the registration.”
- “Sorry, you need to pay off all the parking and speeding tickets — issued to the former owner — first.”
- “Sorry, you need to pay the DMV for past registrations that were overdue, including the penalties.”
Temporary Operating Permits Scarce, Unpredictable
Occasionally, the DMV doles out a “Temporary Operating Permit” to a consumer caught in this bind, but according to an official with the California State Transportation Agency, the DMV has no standards for deciding who gets a permit, or how long it lasts, leaving it up to the office manager’s “discretion.” That lends itself to discrimination, based on whatever the manager’s biases may be.
However, before you can get a “Temporary Operating Permit,” the official wrote that “one requirement is that the registration fees have been paid” — by the dealer. Good luck with that. That’s the deadbeat who ripped you off and went belly up without paying the fees to the DMV, or the arrogant characters in the gleaming palatial new car dealership who hang up on you whenever you call to inquire about when you can drive again without fear of being pulled over at gunpoint.
Why can’t you get your car registered, or get your permanent plates on time?
Common situations that lead to this nightmare scenario:
- Glitches at the DMV, like entering the wrong Vehicle Identification Number, or losing track of the registration documentation.
- Dealers who sell used vehicles without having the title, often because the former owner still owed money when he or she traded in their car. Their lender has a lien on the title, until the loan is paid in full. Until the dealer has a clear title, they may not be able to register the car.
- Dealers who have the permanent license plates sent to them, instead of to the consumer. The dealer refuses to send them the plates, and instead demands extra money — holding the plates for ransom.
- Dealers or “first line service providers” chosen by the dealer and approved by the DMV who fail to send the permanent plates on time, or send them to the wrong address
Dealers holding plates for ransom
Last year, a bus driver in Los Angeles bought a used car from an independent used car lot. As usual, she paid for the permanent plates and the registration. Without telling her, the dealer chose to have the permanent plates sent to the dealership, instead of to her. Over 90 days later, she was still waiting for her plates. One day, the police pulled her over and handed her a so-called “fix-it” ticket. She explained the situation, but the officer was unsympathetic.
She called the dealership. The dealer said he had her permanent plates. But he refused to give her the plates, unless she paid nearly $300 extra for them. The dealer refused to put his demand in writing, or to accept a check or credit card. He told her to bring cash.
She was infuriated, and considered filing a lawsuit. But her resistance wore down, after she was pulled over and ticketed again, and again. The tickets cost her hundreds of dollars. But even worse — If she didn’t get the plates soon, she faced being arrested and having her car towed and impounded. She finally paid the dealer nearly $300 more for permanent plates she had already paid for, when she bought the car.
Even Kansas has better laws against such practices
Consumers in other states, like Kansas, have better protections against car dealers who jerk consumers around and withhold car titles. For example, car dealers in Kansas are required to provide car buyers with title to their cars within 60 days. If the dealer fails to comply with the law, the transactions are void and consumers are entitled to a full refund.
Who opposed AB 516?
News reports highlight car buyers’ nightmarish experiences with dealers who failed to complete their registrations, even though they had paid the dealers to handle the paperwork, and were dependent on them to do their jobs. Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety alerted the news media about these cases:
San Francisco Chronicle Editorial calling for a “quick fix” to address “legitimate concerns” with Assemblymember Mullin’s legislation:
Change an expiration date, go to jail
Raising alarms among groups that oppose adding more laws that result in imprisonment for minor offenses — selectively criminalizing low-income consumers and people of color — AB 516 would make altering just the expiration date on a temporary tag a wobbler/ felony offense, subjecting car buyers to a potential prison sentence of 2-3 years.
Imagine: you are a single mom with three kids. You have only one car. You keep being pulled over by the police and ticketed because you have not received your permanent plates. You take time from work and go to the DMV, waiting in line over and over again, to no avail. Each time, you lose desperately needed income.
If you are detained by the police one more time, making you late for work, you will lose your job. In your desperation, you take a magic marker and change just the expiration date on your temporary tags. You do NOT alter the number on the tags, so toll agencies and law enforcement officers can still readily identify the car, for toll collection or public safety purposes. For this offense, you could be heavily fined, convicted of a FELONY, and sent to prison for 2- 3 years.
Law enforcement agrees: consumers should not be punished for the wrongs committed by car dealers or the DMV
Consumer groups and the California Police Officers Association worked together and drafted amendments to AB 516 that would have addressed the serious problems with the bill, and presented those to the author’s staff, at an in-person meeting. The amendments would have changed the bill so that:
- When law enforcement officials detect that your car has a temporary tag with an expired date, they would have to check an existing law enforcement database, that they can already access electronically, to find out whether you were issued permanent plates. In a matter of seconds, they can tell. If the plates have not been sent to your address, you would not be pulled over or issued a citation.
- It would be an infraction — not a wobbler / felony — to alter just the expiration date on a single temporary tag, leaving the rest of the tag unaltered and readily traceable.
The California Police Officers Association, to its credit, expressed the sentiment that its members are not anxious to pull over and detain people who are already frustrated because they cannot get their permanent plates, so long as they properly display the temporary tags, and the car is readily identifiable for public safety purposes.
However, Assemblymember Mullin refused to accept those amendments. Instead, he added a “fig leaf” to the bill that would require consumers who have not received their permanent plates to prove their own innocence by obtaining a form from the DMV and showing it, if they are detained.
That may sound easy, but in reality, it’s just another Catch-22. The form cited in the bill requires that you sign, under penalty of perjury, that you are the “registered owner of record.” But that’s the problem. You are not the registered owner. The DMV has a history of rejecting car buyers’ attempts to fill out and submit those forms, unless their registration is already complete, and in their names. But that’s the problem. It’s up to the dealer to complete the registration. Gotcha.